Going back home

Local nurse heads back to her clinic in Belize after a harrowing experience

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One week before Donna Reishus left Belize amid tensions with local authorities, she was visited by a 10-year-old girl who told the former Craig nurse about strange police tactics that added to Reishus' concerns about her own safety.

"There were some accusations in Punta Gorda (Belize) around some American men who were eventually jailed and charged with some very serious crimes," Reishus said.

Many of the expatriates in Punta Gorda know each other, and Reishus said she knew the men who have been jailed and charged with trafficking in child pornography.

Because of her loose ties with the suspects, she came under scrutiny as well. The day she left, Oct. 25, officers took Reishus to the station "where I was interrogated for the third time," Reishus said. "They accused me of lying, harboring a fugitive and concealing evidence. All are totally untrue."

This encounter and her knowledge of how the other suspects had been treated, along with the testimony of the 10-year-old girl, convinced Reishus it was no longer safe to stay in the town until things cooled down.

The girl had ridden her bike five miles to Reishus' house to say she felt bad for lying. The girl had just finished telling police one of the suspects had molested her. It was a confession elicited from the girl under threats of being beaten with a stick.

Reishus said police coerced the girl to make a statement against the men. The girl was taken from her home and interrogated. Her parents were not notified. Police threatened to take the girl away from her parents unless she made incriminating statements against the American men, Reishus said.

Reishus raised such objections to the girl's treatment that police re-interviewed her with her mother present. The girl recanted her accusations. The police did not accept this voluntary testimony, Reishus said.

Not long afterward, police took the girl from her school to a detention center. Again her mother was not notified. Reishus said the woman has not heard from her daughter, except through officials who came to get some of the girl's clothes.

"They have taken her to a detention facility for girls," Reishus said. "Nobody can visit her. She's gone."

The Craig Daily Press tried repeatedly to contact officials in Belize about the situation, but calls to the Central American country did not get through. Reishus said it is common for the Belizean phone system to go down, often for days at a time, especially during the rainy season.

Several people, including Belizean nationals, have written the Craig Daily Press to disagree with implications that justice has not been served in Belize. One man said Belize is governed by British Common Law and "our respect for the law is unequalled in Central America."

Reishus tells a different story about Belizean justice.

"In third-world countries, justice has a whole new meaning than it does here," Reishus said.

Reishus fed two meals a day to two of the suspects who were being housed in a holding cell outdoors after undergoing 48-hour interrogation sessions. Reishus said multiple prisoners were held in the 6-foot cell, which had no water and a bucket for a toilet.

"Now you tell me how that's like here," Reishus said.

Those Americans have been transferred to the Hattieville Prison, a facility with "poor" conditions, which houses twice as many prisoners as it was designed for and issues inmates 5-gallon buckets for toilets, according to a 2000 State Department report.

An American businessman in Belize wrote a letter to the Miami Herald on behalf of Reishus and the other Americans.

He implored the Florida newspaper to cover what he called the plight of the Americans in Belize. Reishus provided a copy of the letter to the Craig Daily Press but asked that the man not be identified.

"I and many others here in Punta Gorda who know these Americans well believe that the charges are completely baseless. Nonetheless, for the past two weeks the police have leaked all kinds of unsubstantiated horrific rumors to the press and a witch hunt both in the press and on the radio has begun," the man wrote.

A Belizean newspaper called the Reporter wrote "A doctor who examined the girls has confirmed that one of them has contracted STD, a form of venereal disease, from one of the predators."

These alleged "predators" have not even been tested for venereal diseases, according to Reishus, who said she would know of these tests because she works closely with the hospital.

The letter to the Miami Herald continued, "The housekeeper for one of the Americans was taken a few days ago to the police station and beaten to make her accuse the Americans. She refused to do so."

After what she's seen in recent weeks, the U.S. seems even more homey to Reishus, but it's not home.

"Thank God for the American justice system," she said. "We just don't know how lucky we are. At least everything is fair. We have checks and balances. This is a great place."

But Belize is her home now. She has a house on the beach, and talks in dreamy tones about the simple lifestyle she led in Belize.

Also, she can't stand the thought of leaving her work.

"My heart is there and my clinic is there and it's totally dependant on me," Reishus said.

"I invested three years helping women understand health issues. If I left, it would be what they're used to -- no closure," Reishus said.

She describes a climate where non-governmental organizations arrive, bringing aid and services only to pack up and leave when funding runs out. Strictly speaking, Reishus is a volunteer. She lives off of her savings. She doesn't spend a lot of money, she said.

Her return to Craig provided her a safe haven while things in Belize returned to normal. She describes her time here as "totally positive."

"I've never had so many hugs in my life," she said. "Everybody has been wonderful. Everybody."

But she won't be staying.

She's talked to officials in Belize who indicated it is now safe for her to come back. But after all she's been through, why would she dare?

"I just feel like that's my home now "I want to be there for the people," Reishus said. "I really felt like I was sent there for a purpose. This is just a little bump in the road, I think."

People have called her a martyr. It's a title she refuses to accept.

She said she feels like she was led there to do a job. And the events of late have only reinforced that feeling.

"Anyway, my mom said I could go back," Reishus said.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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