Sunday, May 12, 2013

5/12/1993 - Safety in the Dominican Republic

This post is part of an ongoing series in which I "look in" on the contemporary Dominican Republic while "looking back" at my mission there twenty years ago. Today, I feel inspired to write about safety in the DR.

Shortly after I arrived in the DR as a missionary, another missionary showed me a document which had been provided to the missionaries by the U.S. embassy around the time of the Gulf War (which preceded my mission by several months). I don't remember if the mission president had solicited this document or if the embassy had proffered it. It was a basically a guide on what to do if you're kidnapped. The advice I still remember is: Your best chance for escape is when they're first nabbing you; you need to psychologically prepare yourself for a long captivity; and you should press your captors to improve your conditions by demanding things like toilet paper and books.

The document made such an impression on me that I became paranoid when my trainer and I were approached by a young man who was very keen to have us come to his house but didn't want to be seen talking to us on the street. As it turned out, he did have nefarious intentions, but of a more mundane kind: he feigned a desire to convert in the hope of fleecing us of things like tennis shoes--at which he succeeded; I wasn't sufficiently paranoid on that count.

Once I got acclimated, I felt quite safe as a missionary in the DR. During the Gulf War, a missionary had been the victim of a drive-by shooting, apparently motivated by anti-American sentiment (he survived largely unscathed; his temple garments took the credit). But that incident was anomalous. People regularly shouted "CIA" to us on the streets, but I understood it more as a taunt than a threat. Missionaries, the North Americans especially, were natural targets of petty crime: missionaries liked to swap stories about the ingenious ways people made off with their watches in the streets, that kind of thing. I had my bike stolen several months into my mission while I was inside an investigator's house one night--the horrific aftermath of which is that the police carted off a Haitian neighbor of the investigator, who I also knew, and beat him to try to force a confession. I'm not up to reliving that memory right now; but there's a moral there about safety and vulnerability for different kinds of foreign nationals in the Dominican Republic.

The DR didn't feel unsafe to me until the very end of my mission, when my parents came down to pick me up. We were walking at night to our hotel in a touristy area, when a man began approaching us, pulling a coiled wire out from under his shirt as he did so. My petite, iron-willed mother glared at the man, grabbed my hand and my father's, and pulled us across the street. It was a very unnerving experience, and it suddenly made the DR feel less like home to me than it had. I had been moving blithely through this country, feeling like I belonged; suddenly I felt foreign and targeted.

In 1997, when I was back in the DR working with a Catholic program, I visited Guaricano, which had been my favorite proselyting area. I learned that while LDS missionaries still worked there, they no longer lived there. The area had been ruled to unsafe to live after burglars broke into the elders' home one night and assaulted them. In 2000, I returned to the DR again looking for a job teaching English. While there, I heard chilling stories about American teachers--women, in these stories--being picked up by fake taxis full of thieves posing as passengers, forced to use ATM cards to empty their bank accounts, and in one case killed. During that same trip, I got into such a taxi and had my pocket picked. A good Samaritan found my discarded wallet later that day, found inside the phone number of the house where I was staying, and called. My Dominican hosts feared that the caller was actually one of the thieves trying to lure me into . . . a further assault or a kidnapping, I guess. A stake high councilman and his wife drove me over to the caller's home, who turned out to be legit; in fact, the high councilman ended up trying to turn the encounter into a missionary referral.

I was just looking at the U.S. State Department's travel advisory page for the DR. They make it sound pretty scary, though there's reassuring perspective in their statement that "the dangers present in the Dominican Republic are similar to those of many major U.S. cities."

I can't end a reflection on safety in the DR without remembering . . . well, let's call her Guadi, a young mother living in the area where I was working on this day 20 years ago, whose musician husband was often away working a gig on the other end of the island. One night she was awakened at knifepoint by a thief who had broken into the house. Several days later, she saw the thief walking past their home; fortunately, her husband was home at the time, and he confronted the thief, which led to his arrest. I'm proud of the way ward members pulled together for her, spending the night with her when her husband had to go away again. My companion and I met with her one evening, when she was plainly under a lot of stress. We got the kids off in a corner playing with magnets, we three adults sat down to talk, she vented for a long while, my companion and I listened, the three of us sang "Abide with Me," we prayed. It's one of the spiritual highlights of my mission.

I thank God that I was safe during my time in the DR. I pray for the safety of the people I know who are living there now--Dominicans and Haitians and North Americans. Especially women.

Other posts in this series: 
4/7/1993 - Alma Rosa
2/3/1993 - Ensanche Espaillat
9/30/1992 - La Milagrosa
8/12/1992 - A year after the call
7/1/1992 - FEDOPO
5/6/1992 - Guaricano
4/1/1992 - First day in Guaricano
2/5/1992 - The Zona Franca
12/4/1991 - La Romana
11/6/1991 - My first day in the Dominican Republic
10/9/1991 - Entered the MTC
9/4/1991 - Waiting to serve
8/1/1991 - Mission call