Update on American Kidnappers
Haiti earthquake: In God's name
Soon after the quake, 10 US Baptists were arrested trying to smuggle 33 children out of Haiti. Were they just trying to help, as they claim, or was something more sinister going on?
- Ed Pilkington (external - login to view) in New York and Inigo Gilmore (external - login to view) in Callabasse
- The Guardian (external - login to view), Saturday 13 February 2010
Laura Silsby, one of the 10 American Baptists arrested in Haiti, exits a police vehicle before entering a court building in Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Javier Galeano/AP
The village of Callabasse is perched on top of a hill in the lush St Jacques mountains in Haiti (external - login to view)
. To reach it you drive an hour and a half from the shattered centre of Port-au-Prince, finishing the journey along a dirt track. At the entrance to the village a cluster of concrete houses are set back from the road. A few show signs of minor damage, but the general impression is that this village has been spared much of the terrible impact of the earthquake. The contrast it presents to the devastation of the capital is enhanced by a game of football that is taking place on an expanse of dusty ground to one side of the village.
It was in this small, remote rural community that a bus arrived towards the end of January. Out stepped 10 American Baptists, five men and five women, eight from the sparsely populated western state of Idaho, one from Kansas and the last from Texas.
They had come, by their own reckoning, to bring God's love to the precious children of Haiti. Their God-given mission was to heal the orphans of the disaster, helping them to "find new life in Christ".
With the help of a young man from the village, Isaac Adrien, who could speak English, the Americans asked all the 500 people of Callabasse to assemble on that soccer pitch. With Adrien translating, the Americans handed round leaflets illustrated with pictures of a hotel swathed in greenery and a swimming pool, just a short walk from the sea. It was here, in a seaside resort in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, that the Americans promised they would take children from Callabasse and offer them a new life. "We love God," the leaflet says, "and he has given us tremendous love for the children of Haiti."
Over the next few hours forms were signed, farewells made and about 20 children ushered into the Baptists' bus. And here begins one of the most puzzling, contentious and disturbing episodes to have arisen out of the catastrophe that struck Haiti a month ago.
The Baptists were arrested three weeks ago when the bus, by now bearing 33 children – the eldest 12 years old, the youngest three months – was stopped at the border of the Dominican Republic. Since then the Americans have been held in jail and investigated for kidnapping and criminal association on grounds they tried to take children out of the country without permission.
There are now judicial moves afoot to have them released, with the case judge recommending they be set free. But it is unclear under the Napoleonic legal code how long that could take and yesterday news broke that may further complicate matters. It was revealed that a lawyer who has been widely quoted over the past three weeks as a Dominican adviser to the Baptists, Jorge Puello, has become embroiled in a police investigation in El Salvador into the trafficking of women and girls. An international arrest warrant has been issued for someone of the same name, though Puello angrily denied any link to the New York Times, saying: "Bring the proof."
So what exactly were the Baptists up to? Were they guilty, as charged, of entering a disaster zone, when people, particularly children, are at their most vulnerable, only to exploit them? Or were they, as they have insisted, simply out to help Haiti's traumatised orphans?
The first puzzling fact is that of the 20 children who boarded the bus at Callabasse that day, many were not orphans. They had loving, albeit desperately poor and struggling, parents. Maggie Moise, standing outside her home, described the moment she handed over her nine-year-old twin sons, Volmy and Kimley. She had been approached by Adrien, who told her some white people wanted to help her family.
"They said they wanted to go with our children. They put the names of the children on a piece of paper and asked me to sign it. A white woman told me, 'Don't worry, you will be able to access your children.' They showed me a brochure of where the children would be going to live. I signed the paper."
Why did she sign it? "The country is going to be bad for some time. I cannot help my children. So I gave my boys to the white people," Moise says.
Further clues as to the mindset and intentions of the Baptists are provided by a written plan of action they prepared at the outset of the trip, which they called an "Haitian orphan rescue mission". The plan discloses their ultimate aim: to "gather" up to 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages and take them to a new life in the Dominican Republic.
The document is striking in that it displays profound ignorance of the geography and society of Haiti. It anticipates driving the round trip from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince, collecting the children and bringing them back, in just two days – a wildly overambitious schedule given the destroyed infrastructure of Haiti. It talks of rescuing orphans "abandoned in the streets", which was fanciful as very few children who lost parents would have been abandoned; most Haitians live in extended families with relatives ready to step into the childcare role.
Though the missionaries made no mention of adoption to the parents in Callabasse, their true intentions are made plain in the document. Their goal, it says, is to give each child "opportunities for adoption into a loving Christian family". In the long term, they even conceive building villas near the orphanage in which adopting parents from the US could stay.
The Baptists ask their US friends to pray for "God to continue to grant favour with the Dominican government in allowing us to bring as many orphans as we can into the DR". Yet there is no mention of any attempt, prayerful or otherwise, to persuade the Haitian government to grant permission to take children out of Haiti. Lawyers for the Americans have protested that they had paperwork from the Haitian authorities, though none has yet been produced.
In a country with 380,000 children living in orphanages even before the earthquake, and where up to 2,000 children a year are trafficked to the Dominican Republic, the issue of illegal transportation of minors is hugely sensitive. Many of the children taken abroad do so with the approval of their parents who often mistakenly believe they are relinquishing them to a better life. In all too many cases the young people end up in forced labour or sex slavery, or are sold for adoption in the west.
International aid groups have been working with the Haitian government for several years to try and stem the flow of children. "We are looking for a fundamental shift that will support vulnerable families so that they can take care of the children they love. It's a tragedy that so many think it's preferable to put their children into the hands of strangers," says Phoebe Greenwood, of Save the Children.
What was it about the 10 Baptists that gave them the hubris to believe they would provide better care for Haitian children than those children's parents? The acknowledged leader of the group was Laura Silsby, 40, who since the arrest has maintained the line that "we simply wanted to help these children. We did not understand [Haitian] rules."
Silsby is an active member of Central Valley Baptist church in her hometown of Meridian, Idaho. She became interested in Haiti and its orphans last spring and together with her nanny, Charisa Coulter, another of the arrested, made several visits to the Caribbean country.
By the end of last year she had formulated the idea of creating an orphanage in the Dominican Republic for Haitian children. At precisely the same time, however, and perhaps significantly, Silsby's own private world was imploding.
An investigation by the Idaho Statesman (external - login to view)
has found that an internet business set up and run by her, PersonalShopper.com (external - login to view)
, had fallen behind in payments of its employees and that Silsby had been hit with several civil claims against her. She was due to have appeared in court this week, and her financial troubles are such that last December she foreclosed on her Meridian house.
A month earlier she formally launched her Haitian orphans drive under the auspices of a venture she called New Life Children's Refuge. From then on she appeared to pour all her frustrated business energies into it, using her considerable charm and persuasiveness to win the support of some other members of her Baptist congregation.
"She is a very outgoing, strong lady, very cheerful. She knows what she wants and she is very verbal and dynamic at getting it," says Carolyn Groom, a fellow Baptist at the Central Valley church who says she has known Silsby for years.
Silsby expected her dream to take at least another year to get off the ground, but when the earthquake hit on 12 January she went into hyperdrive. As the document puts it: "God has laid upon our hearts the need to go now v waiting until the permanent facility is built."
Silsby injected that sense of haste into the rest of the group. "She was able to make Haiti seem very urgent," says Groom, "that children were starving, hundreds dying every day and we felt an overwhelming need to do something to help."
Groom came very close to joining Silsby and the others on their venture, but pulled out at the last minute after her husband expressed anxieties about her safety in Haiti as well as about the hazy arrangements for taking children out of the country.
With the benefit of hindsight, Groom has had a change of heart. At first she had no doubts about the righteousness of taking starving kids to a better place. "But now I'm seeing all the negative impact, hearing people calling us stupid Americans and saying we were trying to impose our culture on poor people, and I can see how it looks that way."
And she has changed her opinion of Silsby too. "Her purpose was good, her execution horrible," says Groom. "She might have been so intent on achieving her goals she wasn't aware that she had overstepped the mark."
The other arrested Baptists appear to have developed similar criticisms of their leader. A note handed to NBC television from their jail cell earlier this week reads:
"We only came as volunteers. We had nothing to do with any documents and have been lied to."
There have been other peculiar aspects of Silsby's leadership in the middle of a disaster zone. In the hectic days after the quake, when she was assembling the group to go out to Haiti, she somehow managed to track down a couple from Kentucky, Richard and Malinda Pickett, to offer them help in extracting three children they were already in the process of adopting. She phoned three times, and on each occasion was told by the Picketts that on no condition should she try to move the children.
Remarkably, she didn't stop then. Once in Haiti, Silsby turned up at the orphanage where the children were and asked to collect them. Richard Pickett told Associated Press that she had claimed to be his wife's friend. The three children had by then already been moved, so Silsby asked the orphanage managers if they had any other children she could have.
"She asked for kids at each of the orphanages, and at the end of the day when no one would give her any, she cried. Why would you cry after you see these kids are being taken care of?" Pickett told AP.
Such behaviour raises questions about Silsby's motives and objectives. But for the remaining nine ignorance and naivety appear to go some way to explain how they got in the mess they now find themselves in. Certainly, that would fit a changing pattern of behaviour within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US to which Central Valley Baptist church belongs. Over the past 20 years there has been a dramatic shift away from "career missionaries" who spend years immersed in the culture and language of the people they seek to turn to God, in favour of "missionary tourists" who dip in and out of communities for mere days or weeks and have much less cultural sensitivity.
According to David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, that sea change has come at a time when the convention has been increasingly focused on domestic social and political issues as part of the Christian right, which has led it to sound a strong note of American superiority. "Anyone under 40 years of age will have spent their entire life in the America First model of evangelism," says Key.
That may help understand the predicament of the Baptists arrested in Haiti, but it doesn't make the child care workers of SOS Children's Villages International feel any less angry about what happened. The aid organisation is looking after the 33 children retrieved from Silsby and co in one of its purpose-built compounds outside Port-au-Prince.
The kids arrived there with their names written on pink tape attached to their clothes.
They were hungry, thirsty and in some cases dehydrated. By the calculations of the organisation, up to 20 of them had parents who had been sweet-talked into letting them go.
A girl aged nine told an SOS worker that she could not wait to be reunited with her family. But she added that she wanted to be with her father, not her mother "because she gave me away".
Georg Willeit, a member of SOS's emergency team in Port-au-Prince, says several of the children were depressed and confused because they too were having to deal with the shuddering realisation that their parents had willingly handed them over. He was baffled why the Baptists would have consciously inflicted such deep trauma on vulnerable kids.
"How can you rush into a family and tell them: 'You are so poor you cannot care for your child'? How can you say: 'We know what's best for your child, it's God's gift'?
That takes away the dignity of the parents. It is against all human nature," says Willeit.