Travel: Ghostbusting in Port au Prince - Neil Francis joins an insurance investigator who leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of Haiti's living dead

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The Independent Travel
You do not come across many tourists in Haiti these days. Like most of the people staying at the Grand Oloffson, the country's most spectacular hotel, the fresh- faced young American was not on holiday.

'No, sir, I'm working,' he said, slurping one of the hotel's mind-altering rum cocktails. His name was Steve. He was, he said, a detective, fourth-generation Scottish, down here for a month or two investigating 'QADs'.

'QADs?' I queried.

'It's what we call in the trade a question of actual death.'

Steve was in pursuit of the undead - and that did not mean phantasms. 'Everybody comes here to see zombies, I know, but this is sort of real. Did you know that you can buy your own death certificate in downtown Port au Prince for about five US dollars? A good one, too. They're experts. Look.'

He produced a clipboard on which he carried a thick file of documents. There were pages of blurred mug shots, memos and typed sheets marked 'Confidential'. Among them were copies of death certificates supplemented by detailed descriptions of the QAD suspects, their last known addresses, sightings, etc.

These death certificates were probably forgeries, he said, as he introduced me to his bizarre trade. He described how Haitian ex-pats living in the US would take out life insurance policies there, then return home and play dead in order to cash in on their policies. His agency was hired by the insurance companies to check suspect claims. 'Maybe the claim's a bit on the high side. Sometimes there's doubt as to whether the person even exists. I go talk to people, visit the villages, check the graveyards and wherever possible locate the body. I make sure the guy's not just sitting around on the porch waiting for the cheque to hit the mat.'

Steve's patch covers just about all of the Caribbean and Central America. He works alone, spending most of his time in inhospitable parts of El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti, apart from an occasional trip to report to his office in San Francisco.

Haiti is his favourite. 'This is my fifth time here. I've got three cases to chase, all up-country. I just love the jobs the other guys in the office don't want to do. Most of them will do anything to get out of coming to Haiti. This place, you either love it or you hate it. I love it.'

The company receives about five QADs a month from Haiti. 'Quite often we can locate them just by talking to other people in the village. You find after a while that they're very easy to turn on each other. After a couple of beers, they'll say, 'Oh yeah, you'll find him over there.' Sometimes it's even the relatives that turn them in. Unbelievable]'

A year ago Steve's boss was in Haiti on a case. As he lounged by the hotel pool, he got chatting to a man who told him all about an insurance fraud he had pulled back in the States. The man was lying low in Haiti, the last place the company would look for him. How they laughed about it] 'Turns out this guy is the same one he's been sent down here to investigate,' said Steve. 'Not much he could do when my boss revealed who he was.' The claim was withdrawn.

At other times, they are sent video 'proof' of a person's death. 'You can't believe the elaborate lengths some people go to, to prove they're dead. This video arrived at our head office with his wife's claim for dollars 50,000. It was brilliant. There was a full funeral cortege; the weeping widow, the whole bit. The family were trouping behind the open-topped coffin, which was being carried by a group of bearers.

'So far so good. Then the camcorder lingered on the coffin. There was a big guy in a dark suit lying there, arms folded across his chest. It all looked very convincing - except that the guy was sweating. Claim dismissed.'

It is not hard to see how the poverty of the Haitian people might drive some to fraud. And, given that Steve comes across some desperate people in insalubrious surroundings, I imagined that his job must be risky.

'Well, you get a nose for trouble. If it looks like there might be any, we generally know about it beforehand, and two of us will go in.

'The only time I've been really scared was up in Mexico. A guy got wind of why I was there, and his brother came after me with a gun. I just had to leave town a bit quick, but at least we knew there was no need for the insurance company to pay out.'

Down at the municipal cemetery in Port au Prince in the late afternoon, Steve pointed to a tomb painted in bright turquoise. 'See this?' The name had been crudely glossed over in black and a new occupant's name stencilled in. 'This we'd never accept as proof of death. It happens all the time down here. It doesn't fool anybody.'

The scene was truly medieval and macabre. Smoke from charcoal fires drifted across the huge expanse of majestic tombs. A drunken beggar with seeping eyes had let us in for a dollar, not through the gates, which were locked, but by pointing out a gap in the wrought-iron fence.

There were few paths around the cemetery. Wandering off the main tracks, you quickly became disoriented, and the only sure way to regaining your bearings was to climb on to one of the tombs and look around. Under Steve's guidance, however, we soon found what we had come to see.

In one part of the graveyard, contents of the tombs had been strewn around. Broken caskets lay propped against other tombs. Bones and skulls littered the ground.

Voodoo? Robbery? Or bloody- minded vandalism?

Steve did not know, but he had a theory. 'Some of this is done for revenge, to settle old scores and family disputes,' he said, pointing at the scrawled word 'Reparation' on one tombstone. 'The rest of it is simple grave-robbing.'

This was the detective's second visit to the cemetery. He had told me, back at the Oloffson, what he had seen. I had not really believed it possible, so Steve had agreed to show me.

It had not been such a great idea, and Steve's boyish eagerness for his grisly occupation was beginning to wear a little thin. 'My girlfriend lives just around here,' he announced chirpily.

Carefully we picked our way round the corner, stepping over another open coffin in which the body was covered by a sheet discoloured with brown blood stains. I was thankful that Steve fought shy of lifting it to peek.

But there was worse to come. A tomb front, formerly a concrete panel, had been smashed open, the coffin had been broken, and the body of a woman was hanging out of it. 'Ain't she beautiful?' said Steve.

'You get used to it in my line. Looking for the living dead, you tend to see a lot of the dead dead. Yes sir, I think they'll have to pay out on this one.'

(Photograph omitted)

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