Wabash Voices: A Piercing Silence

  September 29, 2004

Peter Prengaman '98 is the Associated Press correspondent in the Dominican Republic. He wrote the following emial, reprinted her with permission, to a close friend after a gunman attempted to kidnap Peter as he was covering the rebellion in Haiti last spring.

11 March 2004

Prengaman on the road near Mapou, Haiti, photographed after his car got a flot tire on the way to cover major flooding along the Dominican-Haitian border that left more than 3,000 dead.     

Tonight I feel too overwhelmed to think about much else other than what happened today. It was both good and terrible. A little bit of luck and destiny kept me from getting killed.

I was at a gas station when I heard screams and gunshots. Two guys were running wildly toward the gas station while others followed them with rocks. The two men had guns and were shooting. It was pure chaos—just people shooting and screaming.

My fixer [translator/aide] had gone into the service center, leaving me and another guy in the  car. He told me to stay put, but I wasn’t that stupid—one of the men with a pistol was running straight for us. I got out of the passenger side, ran around to the other side, and kneeled. Shots were going off everywhere, but with shots ricocheting and echoing off the buildings, I couldn’t figure where they were coming from.

The guy running toward us stopped and shot into a car with people about five meters away. Then he ran at me, pointed the gun at my chest, and told me to get in the car and drive. I put up my hands and backed up, telling him I didn’t have the keys. I didn’t realize that my fixer had left them in the ignition.

The guy looked at the keys, pointed at them, then aimed the gun at me and told me to get in. I reached for the keys without getting into the car.

When the guy turned around and started shooting toward someone behind us, I grabbed the keys, pulled them out, and ran like hell for about three blocks. I ran with my head down. Dozens of shots went off and people were screaming. I can still hear those shots in my head; they were so much louder than the others. I found out later that the gunman I’d eluded was using a shotgun.

When I stopped running, I started shaking. I have never had a gun pointed at me like that, and this guy clearly had nothing against shooting.  It took me about five minutes to get myself under control enough to call the fixer on my cell phone. I told him where I was, and he came and got the keys. Then I smoked four of his cigarettes—and I find the habit disgusting!

When I got back to the gas station, the firefight was over, but “justice” was just beginning to be meted out. A security guard struck the man who had pointed the gun at me with a  shotgun. A mob surrounded him and started to beat him and bludgeon him with rocks. I heard later that he died.

The mob attacked and the second man. All I could do was watch men picked him up and slammed his head on the ground repeatedly. Then kicked him. Then smashed him with stones. The image haunts me more than the memory of being held at  gunpoint.

Do you know who these guys were? Just two dudes who tried to steal a motorcycle. They were killed for that! Life is worth nothing here.


"My only solace is the knowledge that much of the world doesn't live like this. There are places where people believe life is worth protecting, where the dead have dignity as they cross over and where poeple have hope in the future."

I know I’m lucky the guy didn’t shoot me. At that range it could have been fatal. Though I didn’t think about it at the time, I was also wise not to get in the car. I simply would have been in the line of fire while others tried to gun this guy down.

When my bosses heard about the incident, they told me I could stop working and go back to the hotel. But  I decided to keep at it. I knew that thinking too much about this day would make it worse. I was okay today, but tonight I’ve felt kind of weird. Just irritable and kind of sick, and not in the mood to talk to anybody.

I’ve just seen way too much this past week. I close my eyes and see the public morgue that I’ve visited about a half-dozen times already. Hundreds of bodies are piled up on top of each other like firewood. The only thing worse than the smell, which burns your eyes and makes you constantly gag even with a rag over your face, is the piercing silence of the lifeless.

I also can’t forget the screams of a young woman in a public hospital, who I watched two days ago have a bullet removed from her arm with a razor blade and no anesthetic. The floor was covered with blood and chunks of flesh, as a doctor tried to cut as quickly as possible to keep her pain to a minimum.

My only solace is the knowledge that much of the world doesn’t live like this. There are places where people believe life is worth protecting, where the dead have dignity as they cross over, and where people have hope in the future.

The people here are wonderful— proud Africans who move to Caribbean rhythms—but the country is so crushingly poor and fractured that daily existence for most is similar to that of animals.

I’d better go. I wanted to send you a different message, but this is all that’s on my mind tonight.


Contact Prengaman at:   peterprengaman@hotmail.com