PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – There is not one orphan among the 33 children that a U.S. Baptist group tried to take from Haiti in a do-it-yourself rescue mission following a devastating earthquake, The Associated Press has determined.
In a visit to the rubble-riddled Citron slum where 13 of the children lived, parents who gave their children away confirmed that each one of the youngsters had living relatives.
Their testimony echoed that of parents in the mountain town of Callabas, outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, who told the AP on Feb. 3 that desperation and blind faith led them to hand over 20 children over to the religious Americans who promised them a better life.
But now they are concerned that they may never see their children again.
One mother in Citron who gave up all four of her children, including a 3-month-old infant, drifts in and out of a trance-like state during a reporter's visit or erupts into sudden fits of hysteria.
She and other parents said they relinquished their children to the U.S. missionaries because they were promised they would be kept safe across the border in a newly established orphanage in the Dominican Republic.
The relatives' stories contradict statements from the missionaries' still-jailed leader, Laura Silsby, who said all of the children were either orphans or relinquished to the Americans by distant relatives.
"She should have told the truth," said Jean Alex Viellard, a 25-year-old law student from Citron, where nearly all of the 13 children in question come from two families.
Even so, Viellard expressed admiration for the missionaries, bringing them cookies, candies and oranges during their nearly three weeks of detention. Eight of the 10 were released Wednesday on their own recognizance and flew home to the United States.
Silsby, 47, and her young assistant, Charisa Coulter, 24, remain jailed as the investigating judge interviews officials at the orphanages the two visited prior to the devastating Jan. 12 quake. They are scheduled to appear in court again Tuesday.
As they left the jail and boarded a U.S. Embassy van, the freed Baptists waved and thanked Viellard, who later called them "great people who were doing good for Haiti."
The Americans, most from an Idaho church group, were charged with child kidnapping for trying to remove the children without the proper documents in the post-quake chaos.
Silsby had been working to create an orphanage in the Dominican Republic in a hastily organized self-styled "rescue mission."
In the Citron slum, she enlisted the help of Pastor Jean Sainvil, an Atlanta-Georgia-based Haitian minister who rounded up the 13 children there.
Sainvil had been a frequent visitor to the neighborhood of unpaved streets and simple cement homes even before more than half of the houses collapsed in the quake.
"The pastor said that with all the bodies decomposing in the rubble there were going to be epidemics, and the kids were going to get sick," said Regilus Chesnel, a 39-year-old stone mason.
Chesnel's wife, 33-year-old Bertho Magonie, said that her husband persuaded her to give away their own children — ages 12, 7, 3, and 1 — and a 10-year-old nephew living with them because their house had collapsed and the kids were sick.
"They were vomiting. They had fevers, diarrhea and headaches," she said, leaning against the wall of the grimy two-room hovel the couple shares.
In a telephone interview from the United States on Saturday, Sainvil said it was true that a collapsed building near where the children lived held six or seven corpses.
He said that he first met Silsby on Jan. 27 in the town of Ouanaminthe on the Haiti-Dominican border and agreed to help her collect children for a 150-bed orphanage the Americans were establishing near the beach resort of Cabarete in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Sainvil, a former orphan who says his nondenominational Haiti Sharing Jesus Ministry has 25 churches in the countryside, said the two agreed to meet again in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 13 to get more children.
The day after he met Silsby, Sainvil collected the 13 children from Citron. A day after that, the missionaries' bus was halted at the Dominican border and they were arrested. Sainvil, meanwhile, became sick with vomiting and diarrhea and decided to fly back to the U.S. on a military transport plane, he said.
He denied he left because he feared he might get arrested.
"I wasn't doing anything wrong," he said.
Sainvil said what Silsby was doing did not constitute adoption "because the parents had the right to go visit their children or take them back when their situation changed."
The pastor said their efforts may have been misunderstood because many in the developing world don't realize that more than half of the 380,000 children in Haiti's orphanages are not orphans. Many have parents who — even before the quake — were simply unable to care for them.
The problem is that some of the "orphans" end up as sex slaves in and outside of Haiti or are given jobs doing housework in exchange for food, shelter — and sometimes school. It is precisely because of that phenomenon that, following the quake, Haiti's government restricted all adoptions except those approved beforehand.
Sainvil said he went to Citron for children because he knew people there were desperate: He had been sleeping under tarps with them. Food was barely trickling in, medical care was just becoming available and hundreds of decomposing bodies were buried beneath the neighborhood's collapsed homes.
Like those in Callabas, the parents in Citron said that they believed the Americans could keep their children safe and healthy.
They also said they were promised they would be able to visit their kids in the orphanage Silsby was establishing in the Dominican Republic. They were told that only kids without parents would be put up for adoption.
But now they are terrified their children are gone forever.
Under one of the blue tarps sheltering homeless residents in Citron, 27-year-old Maletid Desilien lay on a bed of two soiled rugs.
Only her eyes peered out from under a bedsheet.
"She has been like that ever since someone told her she will never get the kids back," said her husband, Dieulifanne Desilien, who works in a T-shirt factory.
That was eight days ago. Most of the time she lies there catatonic, he said, warning a reporter not to go near because she periodically has fits.
"She would get up, take her clothes off," Sesilien, 40, said of his wife. "She would jump up from sleep and say, 'Bring me my kids."'
He said she only calms down and is able to sleep after speaking by phone with her children, who are at an orphanage in the capital run by the Austrian-based SOS Children's Villages charity.
The day they arrived, orphanage officials said, the Desiliens' 3-month-old daughter, Koestey, was so dehydrated she had to be hospitalized. The other children are ages 7, 6 and 4. Their father — but not their mother — has visited them.
Desilien said a police commander has assured that he will get the children back. The Social Welfare ministry, however, has yet to decide whether some or all of the 33 children will be returned to their parents.
"My wife is sick so I have to find a way to get the children back," Seselien said.