CALLEBAS, Haiti – Desperate parents in this struggling village perched above Haiti’s earthquake-flattened capital said they gave their children away willingly, trusting the American missionaries who promised to take them to a better life.
The stories the villagers told the Associated Press on Wednesday contradict claims by the Baptist group’s leader that the children came from orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives. But they also attest to the misery of a nation that was the hemisphere’s poorest even before the Jan. 12 earthquake struck.
The 10 Baptists, most from Idaho, were arrested last week trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without the required documents, according to Haitian authorities, who have accused them of child trafficking.
The Americans are to appear today before a prosecutor who will decide whether to file charges or release them, Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue told the AP.
Even Prime Minister Max Bellerive has said he recognizes the Americans may simply be well-meaning do-gooders who believed their charitable intent justified trying to remove the children from quake-crippled Haiti.
“There is no government in Haiti,” their lawyer, Jorge Puello, argued Wednesday by phone from the Dominican Republic.
Standing amid piles of debris that used to be their homes and the makeshift shelters of tin and plastic sheeting that have replaced them, the people of Callebas told how they came to surrender their children.
It began last week when a local orphanage worker, fluent in English and acting on behalf of the Baptists, convened nearly the entire village of 500 people on a dirt soccer field to present the Americans’ offer.
Isaac Adrien, 20, told his neighbors the missionaries would educate their children in the neighboring Dominican Republic, the villagers said, adding that they were also assured they would be free to visit their children there.
Many parents jumped at the offer.
Adrien said he met the Baptists’ leader, Laura Silsby of Meridian, Idaho, in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26. She told him she was looking for homeless children, he said, and he knew exactly where to find them.
In a jailhouse interview Saturday, Silsby told the AP that most of the children had been delivered to the Americans by distant relatives, while some came from orphanages that had collapsed in the quake.
Puello told the AP on Wednesday that the missionaries “willingly accepted kids they knew were not orphans because the parents said they would starve otherwise.”
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attempt to bring undocumented children out of Haiti was “unfortunate whatever the motivation” and the Americans should have followed proper procedures. She said U.S. officials were in discussions with Haitian authorities about resolving the case.
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