Dajabon, Dominican Republic – Signs of the nearby Haitian border materialise long before one reaches this remote frontier town.
Women walk with buckets of goods on their heads. Men balance bulbous loads across motorcycle handlebars. Soldiers guard intermittent checkpoints on the main road.
A 388km border divides the island of Hispaniola into two countries: the Dominican Republic – which occupies the eastern two-thirds – and Haiti.
Trade and security are ubiquitous issues along the boundary of these former Spanish and French territories with a history of post-colonial conflict.
In Dajabon – home to about 25,000 people – the brown waters of the Massacre River separate the town from its larger Haitian counterpart, Ouanaminthe. The river’s name stems from a colonial era slaughter of French buccaneers, but it ran red with blood again in 1937 after the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the mass killing of Haitians.
|Despite haunting chapters in Dominican-Haitian relations, Dajabon is prospering as a trading hub [Joe Jackson/Al Jazeera]
Despite these haunting chapters in relations – and persistent tensions at the national level – Dajabon is prospering as a trading hub.
National exports to Haiti more than doubled between 2007 and 2011. The country is now the second-biggest market for Dominican goods – after the US – and the town is the biggest commercial crossing.
“If we hate each other, we’re not going to grow,” said Jorge Vargas, a local government planning director.
As businesses boom, national banks are opening branches here and people, including retired soldiers who served in the area, are becoming new residents, he added.
“We now call Dajabon a land of opportunity,” Vargas said.
Dajabon is about as far from the capital Santo Domingo as it’s possible to get without leaving the Dominican Republic.
Situated in the country’s more arid northwest, near the northern tip of the border, the town has been on both sides of the shifting frontier over the centuries.
As a result, it’s long forged its own identity as a commercial crossroads, said Edward Paulino, an assistant history professor at John Jay College in New York.
“The border, especially Dajabon … has always had these inclusive, more collaborative sensibilities,” he said.
Paulino recalled an old man aptly telling him during a visit there: “We are the beginning and the end of the nation.”
The town has attracted – or been forced upon – a variety of residents over time.
When the strongman ruler Trujillo took complete power in 1930, he began an aggressive effort to make the frontier Dominican.
This did not end with the 1937 massacre of as many as 20,000 Haitians. He continued ordering families to the border areas in the decades that followed, even releasing inmates from the jail in nearby Loma de Cabrera and giving them land, said Vargas.
After World War II, the dictator struck a deal with then-devastated Japan for hundreds of families to move to Dajabon to cultivate the rice fields. “Colonia Japonesa” – an area north of the town given to the Japanese immigrants – still exists today.
“Most of the Japanese living here in the Dominican are from that lineage,” said Noriyuki Then, 25, who shares Dominican and Japanese ancestry and works in Dajabon for the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Small numbers of Chinese and Russian immigrants have also arrived since, giving Dajabon further international flavour.
Trade is the lifeblood of the town. A market facility built on the border, jointly funded in 2005 by the United Nations Development Programme and the European Union, began to operate in 2010.
|The Massacre River is named after the mass killings that took place in colonial times [EPA]
Haitians can enter on Mondays and Fridays without immigration controls to trade at the site. During a recent visit, streams of Haitians flowed back and forth over the impossibly narrow Friendship Bridge – as the border crossing is known.
People could also be seen wading through the river nearby, to avoid having to pay potential bribes to the guards, locals said.
The scene would not be out of place in sub-Saharan Africa. Men pushed wheelbarrows, hauled sacks, drove vehicles laden with goods; women hawked food, drink, shoes, clothes, toiletries and other staples, many sitting on the roadside.
A truck carrying an Evergreen shipping container struggled to make its way through the crowd as Dominican soldiers looked on from razor-wire border posts.
An air of frenzy engulfed the place. At one point, a fight broke out in a channel of people waiting to file onto the bridge and the crowd surged in panic.
Inside the enormous new market hall all manner of goods were being sold: bags, brooms, toilet paper, coconuts, tomatoes, sunglasses, flip flops, and dried fish.
The gradual relocation of the market from the town centre to the riverside after 2005 has been good for Dominican merchants. Homeowners on the road leading to the bridge have begun turning their front rooms into storefronts.
Bartollo Dominguez, a 47-year-old household goods wholesaler, has moved the bulk of his operations to the new site. He’s also learned some Creole to help do business with Haitian customers.
“Moving closer to the frontier helps a lot,” he said as he negotiated with two women. “My business has grown.”
|Food, drink, shoes, clothes, toiletries and other staples are among the many goods traded in Dajabon [Joe Jackson/Al Jazeera]
The growing cross-border trade has been accompanied by greater efforts at cultural exchange, in the hope of healing some of the historical wounds.
A group called Border of Lights has been marking the anniversary of the 1937 massacre with shared art, social action and annual candlelight vigils.
Cynthia Carrion, whose grandparents herald from the region, got involved in the collective several years ago. Based in New York, she paid tribute to those in Dajabon helping change the script of the Haitian border.
“It’s different than the capital,” said Carrion. “They realise they need their neighbours.”
When Al Jazeera visited, amateur Haitian football players were in town to play with Dominicans. Musicians had also crossed for weekend concerts under the banner “a hug on the bridge”.
Alphonse Patrick, from Cap Haitien, Haiti, a 45-year-old member of a Kompa music band, said he often travels to the Dominican Republic. With a US visa in his passport, he’s afforded easy passage.
“I’m lucky,” he acknowledged. “It’s a privilege … because I’m a musician.”
Patrick said the rising border traffic reflects a new reality on both sides. People are more concerned with the present than the past.
“Haitians buy everything here,” he said. “People who come to buy stuff, they don’t know anything about history. They don’t care; for these people … it’s not significant.”
Time of transition
But such fraught, shared history is not entirely escapable. Reminders loom around Dajabon, from the moniker of the river border itself to the equally moribund named Hotel Massacre.
More worryingly flashpoints occur over tariffs, imbalances that leave Haiti with a trade deficit and security issues.
In 2012, allegations that a Haitian worker in nearby Loma de Cabrera had killed a Dominican led local people to order all Haitians to leave within 24 hours.
Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic’s highest court ruled last year that more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent will no longer be considered citizens unless they prove their parents’ legal status at the time of their birth.
However, the people of Dajabon remain upbeat.
“There have been some conflicts but it’s more nationally,” said Noriyuki Then. “We’re living at a time of transition to overcome that because if not, we wouldn’t be able to have conversations about the future.”
This is the first in a four-part series on unique border towns in the Americas