When historians talk aboutthe atrocities of the 20th century,
we often think of those that took place
during and between the two World Wars.
Along with the Armenian genocidein modern-day Turkey,
the Rape of Nanking in China,
and Kristallnacht in Germany,
another horrific ethnic cleansing campaign
occurred on an island betweenthe Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
The roots of this conflictgo back to 1492,
when Christopher Columbus stumbledonto the Caribbean island
that would come to be named Hispaniola, launching a wave of European colonization.
The island’s Taíno natives were decimatedby violence and disease
and the Europeans imported large numbersof enslaved Africans
to toil in profitable sugar plantations.
By 1777, the island had become divided
between a French-controlled Westand a Spanish-controlled East.
A mass slave revolt won Haiti its independence
from France in 1804
and it became the world’sfirst black republic.
But the new nation paid dearly,
shut out of the world economy and saddled with debt by its former masters. Meanwhile,
the Dominican Republicwould declare independence
by first overthrowing Haitian ruleof eastern Hispaniola
and later Spanishand American colonialism.
Despite the long and collaborative historyshared by these two countries,
many Dominican elites saw Haitias a racial threat
that imperiled political and commercialrelations with white western nations.
In the years following World War I,
the United States occupied both parts of the island.
It did so to secure its powerin the Western hemisphere
by destroying local oppositionand installing US-friendly governments.
The brutal and racist natureof the US occupation,
particularly along the remoteDominican-Haitian border,
laid the foundation for bigger atrocitiesafter its withdrawal.
In 1930, liberal Dominican presidentHoracio Vásquez
was overthrown by the chief of his army,Rafael Trujillo.
Despite being a quarter Haitian himself,
Trujillo saw the presence of a biculturalHaitian and Dominican borderland
as both a threat to his power
and an escape routefor political revolutionaries.
In a chilling speech on October 2, 1937,
he left no doubt about his intentionsfor the region.
Claiming to be protecting Dominicanfarmers from theft and incursion,
Trujillo announced the killingof 300 Haitians along the border
and promised that this so-called”remedy”would continue.
Over the next few weeks,the Dominican military,
acting on Trujillo’s orders,
murdered thousands of Haitian menand women,
and even their Dominican-born children.
The military targeted black Haitians,
even though many Dominicans themselveswere also dark-skinned.
Some accounts say that to distinguishthe residents
of one country from the other,
the killers forced their victims to say the Spanish word for parsley.
Dominicans pronounce it perejil,with a trilled Spanish”r.”
The primary Haitian language, however, is Kreyol,
which doesn ’ t use a trilled r.
So if people struggled to say perejil,
they were judged to be Haitianand immediately killed.
Yet recent scholarship suggeststhat tests like this
weren’t the sole factor used to determinewho would be murdered,
especially because many of the borderresidents were bilingual.
The Dominican government censoredany news of the massacre,
while bodies were thrown in ravines,
dumped in rivers, or burned to dispose of the evidence.
This is why no one knows
exactly how many people were murdered,
though contemporary estimatesrange from about 4,000 to 15,000.
Yet the extent of the carnagewas clear to many observers.
As the US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic
at the time noted,
“The entire northwest of the frontieron the Dajabón side
is absolutely devoid of Haitians.
Those not slain either fled
across the frontier or are still hiding in the bush. ”
The government triedto disclaim responsibility
and blame the killingson vigilante civilians,
but Trujillo was condemnedinternationally. Eventually,
the Dominican government was forced to
pay only $ 525,000 in reparations to Haiti,
but due to corrupt bureaucracy,
barely any of these funds reached survivors or their families.
Neither Trujillo nor anyonein his government
was ever punished for this crimeagainst humanity.
The legacy of the massacre remainsa source of tension
between the two countries.
Activists on both sides
of the border have tried to heal the wounds of the past.
But the Dominican state has done little,if anything,
to officially commemoratethe massacre or its victims. Meanwhile,
the memory of the Haitianmassacre remains a chilling reminder
of how power-hungry leaderscan manipulate people
into turning againsttheir lifelong neighbors.