All Haitian 'orphans' had relatives, say families

There is not one orphan among the 33 children a US Baptist group tried to take from Haiti in a do-it-yourself post-earthquake rescue mission, it has emerged.

There is not one orphan among the 33 children a US Baptist group tried to take from Haiti in a do-it-yourself post-earthquake rescue mission, it has emerged.

In a visit yesterday to the rubble-riddled Citron slum where 13 of the children lived, parents who gave their children away said each one of the youngsters had living parents.

Their testimony echoed that of parents in the mountain town of Callabas, outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, who told the Associated Press on February 3 that desperation and blind faith led them to hand over 20 children to the religious Americans who promised them a better life.

Now the Citron parents worry they may never see their children again.

One mother who gave up all four of her children, including a three-month-old, is locked in a trance-like state but sometimes erupts into fits of hysteria.

She and other parents said they gave their children to the US missionaries because they were promised safekeeping across the border in a newly-established orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

Their stories contradict the missionaries' still-jailed leader, Laura Silsby, who said the day after her arrest that the children were either orphans or came from distant relatives.

"She should have told the truth," said Jean Alex Viellard, a 25-year-old law student from Citron who otherwise expressed admiration for the missionaries.

He took them cookies, candies and oranges during their nearly three weeks of detention before eight of the 10 were released on Wednesday and flew home to the US.

Silsby, 47, and her assistant, Charisa Coulter, 24, remain jailed as the investigating judge interviews officials at the orphanages the two visited before the devastating January 12 quake. They will appear in court again on Tuesday.

The Americans, most from an Idaho church group, were charged with child kidnapping for trying to remove the children without the proper documents to the neighbouring Dominican Republic in the post-quake chaos.

Silsby had been working since last summer to create an orphanage. After the quake, she hastily organised a self-styled "rescue mission", enlisting missionaries from Idaho, Texas and Kansas.

She was led to Citron by Pastor Jean Sainvil, an Atlanta, Georgia-based Haitian minister who recruited the 13 children in the slum. He had been a frequent visitor to the neighbourhood 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 stonemason.

Mr Chesnel's wife, 33-year-old Bertho Magonie, said her husband persuaded her to give away their children aged 12, seven, three, and one - and a 10-year-old nephew living with them because their house had collapsed and the children were sick.

In a telephone interview from the US yesterday, Mr Sainvil said he first met Silsby on January 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 Dominican Republic.

Mr Sainvil, a former orphan who says his non-denominational Haiti Sharing Jesus Ministry has 25 churches in the countryside, said the two agreed to meet again in Port-au-Prince on February 13 to get more children.

The day after he met Silsby, Mr Sainvil collected the 13 children from Citron. A day after that, the missionaries' bus was halted at the Dominican border and they were arrested. Mr Sainvil meanwhile, said he became sick with vomiting and diarrhoea and decided to fly back to the US on a military transport plane.

He denied leaving out of fear he might be arrested. "I wasn't doing anything wrong," he said.

Mr 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 his deeds were often misunderstood by people in the developed worked who did not realise that more than half of the 380,000 children in Haiti's orphanages were not orphans. Many have parents who - even before the quake - were simply unable to care for them.

Sainvil said he went to Citron for children because he knew people there were desperate, with food barely trickling in, medical care just becoming available and hundreds of decomposing bodies buried beneath the neighbourhood's collapsed homes.

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