EXCLUSIVE: 'Radically different' story emerges about Baptists detained in Haiti
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story is based on interviews with Paul Thompson, one of the 10 Baptists held in prison in Haiti.
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (BP)--Paul Thompson reads the media accounts describing the journey of him and nine other jailed Baptist volunteers in Haiti who are all now free, and scratches his head. He was there. What he reads is not what he experienced.
Thompson, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho, was one of those 10 Baptist volunteers who went to Haiti in late January with the goal of taking orphans out of the earthquake-ravaged country and into an orphanage being started in the Dominican Republican. That trip took a disastrous turn Jan. 30 when the 10 were shocked to learn they were being charged with child kidnapping, with allegations swirling that the group had plans to sell the kids into slavery, or worse, to harvest and sell their organs.
Such rumors were false, but it took more than 100 days to finally resolve the matter. Eight of them were freed in February, a ninth one released in March, and the final one -- Laura Silsby -- was let go May 17, more than 100 days after the ordeal began.
The story Thompson tells is far different from what has been described repeatedly in most media accounts.
"It's radically different," Thompson said.
-- The 10 Americans did not, as has been alleged in some accounts, go through the streets of Port-au-Prince passing out flyers and going door-to-door looking for children, Thompson said. Instead, the 33 children they were trying to take across the border in a medium-sized bus came from two orphanages, and orphanage workers told them that none of the children had parents.
-- The group was told multiple times before they got to the border that their documentation and paperwork -- the source of the controversy -- was sufficient, Thompson said. A Haitian child services official said as much, as did a Haitian policeman and an orphanage director who has extensive experience transferring orphans from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.
-- The 10 Baptists were arrested in Port-au-Prince, and not at the border. They thought they would go free until UNICEF -- a United Nations agency -- got involved and pressed charges, Thompson says.
-- They were arrested on Jan. 30, and not Jan. 29 as has been reported repeatedly.
Thompson said that ever since he was released from jail Feb. 17 -- after spending 19 days there -- he's wanted the group's side of the story told but feared going public would endanger members of the group that were still in prison. Everyone, though, is now free.
Their only goals, Thompson says, were to spread the Gospel and to help children. That latter goal seemed to be on track until that disastrous afternoon of Jan. 30 when they were arrested and their lives were forever changed. Until that afternoon, Thompson says, they saw no "red flags," nothing to make them think, "Wait a minute, something's not feeling good."
THEIR FIRST TRIP INTO HAITI
The group's Haiti story actually began five days prior to their arrest, when they boarded a Greyhound-sized bus at 6 a.m. Jan. 25 for the six-hour drive from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republican to Port-au-Prince. The closer they got to the earthquake zone, the more destruction they saw, until finally, arriving in Haiti's capital, it quickly became clear they were "in a leveled city." Only a few buildings were left standing, and many of the city's orphanages had moved their children to tent cities.
Before entering Haiti the group had made contact with a handful of orphanages, being told by the orphanage directors that they were overcrowded and had quake orphans who could be moved to the Dominican Republican. But the first orphanage the group went to that day -- despite being crowded and having children who were needing food -- "completely changed" its story when Thompson and the others showed up. The orphanage was receiving food and water from outside agencies based on head count and didn't want to lose any residents, Thompson said.
The Baptists did receive cooperation late that day at another tent city orphanage, which gave the group approximately six children to take to the Dominican Republic orphanage. The children were placed on the bus but taken off when a Haitian policeman named Leonard -- who Thompson said became a "very helpful ally" -- told the group the orphanage was not a "recognized" orphanage. He also told the group that they needed written permission from an orphanage director in order to cross the border with the children and take them to the Dominican Republican orphanage, New Life Children's Refuge.
"And so we took these kids off our bus, gave them back into the care of the tent-city orphanage," Thompson said. "... We cooperated with every government agency and personnel that we talked to."
The policeman was "the first to tell us that all that is necessary for us is to have written documentation from an orphanage director transferring the custody of the children from his orphanage to New Life Children's Refuge," Thompson said.
Because the first orphanage didn't cooperate and the second one didn't have the proper paperwork, the group decided to go back to the Dominican Republic, where it would regroup, get a smaller bus -- thus making it easier to navigate the streets -- and make phone contact with other orphanages in Port-au-Prince to see if they had children who needed to be housed elsewhere safe. They also asked their three translators, whom they were leaving behind and who had grown up in orphanages, to contact any orphanages they were close to and inquire about children. After a night's sleep in Port-au-Prince, the Baptists drove to Santo Domingo on Jan. 26.
THEIR SECOND TRIP INTO HAITI
The group headed back toward Haiti on Jan. 27, and at the border was surprised when -- without the group's permission -- border guards began loading strangers onto the bus for the trip into Port-au-Prince. Fearing for their safety the Baptists told the guards to take the new passengers off the bus. Yet amidst the chaos and confusion they did allow one man and his assistant to stay. His name was Jean Sainvil, a pastor who -- providentially -- directs orphanages in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He had never met members of the group, but their shared interests quickly sparked a conversation on the bus about orphanages and needy children.
"He explained who he was and that he was trying to get back to his family in Port-au-Prince to assess more of the damage on the orphanages that he's director of," Thompson said. "... This director, this pastor, confirmed what the policeman told us the day before: that all that's necessary to transfer orphans from orphanage to orphanage is custody transfer, written documentation from the orphanage director. So there's a second confirmation for us that that's the documentation that's required and necessary."
Sainvil told the group that at least one of his orphanages was destroyed and that it would be helpful if he could transfer some of its residents to New Life Children's Refuge in the Dominican Republic. The two sides agreed to meet the next day at Sainvil's. First, though, Sainvil was dropped off at a relative's and the group went to a Christian school compound where they stayed the night.
SEEING ORPHANAGES IN RUINS
The next morning Thompson and the others met up with their translators, one of whom had made contact with an orphanage he grew up in that was overcrowded. When the bus arrived at the orphanage -- located in a mountain village -- the children, about 13 of them, were ready and waiting to board. Following protocol, Silsby got each child's name, birth date and closest living relative, and the children boarded.
Everything appeared to be in order, but when the bus started pulling away one boy began to cry, screaming in Creole that his dad was outside the bus. The bus stopped.
"He was weeping and had tears rolling down his eyes," Thompson said of the boy. "... As soon as we discovered that that kid's dad was outside the bus, we put him back in the custody of his dad."
The fact that a child who had a living parent was at the orphanage underscored the country's desperate situation.
"We had heard," Thompson said, "that this was a common practice -- that an actual parent would take their children to an orphanage and insist that this child has no parents, knowing that that child could be better taken care of at an orphanage."
Silsby then phoned Sainvil, who told her he was not yet ready for them to come to his orphanage. With time on their hands, the group headed to the Dominican Republic embassy in Port-au-Prince to try and obtain a document the Baptists had learned the D.R. requires to transfer orphans into that country.
No one at the consulate, though, had the document. Silsby's wait inside the consulate lasted so long -- at least an hour -- that the Baptists on the bus decided to feed the children.
"There were several delays," Thompson said. "She came out one time and said that the person that is supposed to meet her with the document was on their way."
The person never showed up.
"From this side of things, that kind of dialogue is probably better interpreted as delay tactics, because they didn't have the paperwork," Thompson said. "Nobody had it, and it was not there. These are government agencies telling us the person with the paperwork is on their way. So we waited and waited and waited. Eventually we told them that we have this appointment to meet at the orphanage with Pastor Jean Sainvil. We left the embassy building."
WERE THEY REALLY ORPHANS?
Sainvil's orphanage -- and most of the neighborhood around it -- was destroyed. Despite that, the 20 or so kids from Sainvil's orphanage were dressed and ready, and they boarded the bus one at a time as Sainvil gave Silsby each child's name, birth date and closest living relative.
It would later be learned that none of the children -- not the 20 at Sainvil orphanage and not the 13 at the mountain village -- were orphans. Thompson says now he does not know who was deceiving whom, but that he and the others believed they were receiving children who were orphaned because of the earthquake.
"That's still an unknown for us," Thompson said. "But as far as we knew, these kids that this pastor was giving into our care and our custody had no moms and no dads. We had communicated above board that this is the purpose of this ministry -- it is to only minister to kids that have no moms and no dads. And it was communicated frequently. So somewhere along the way, a deception was communicated to us who these kids were."
With 33 children now in their care, the group headed back to the Dominican Republic embassy to see if the official who supposedly had the necessary document had arrived. The person, though, had not, but Silsby was told the document would be waiting for them at the border.
The group members now faced a dilemma: they did not have the proper documents to cross the border but -- with it now being close to nighttime -- they also did not have a place for them and the children to sleep. Officials with the Christian school compound previously had told Silsby and the others that they would not be allowed to bring children into the facility, but the group felt it had no other choice but to try. Sure enough, though, the school turned the group away. So that night, the 10 Baptists and the 33 children slept on the streets just outside the compound, with military personnel on the compound grounds making it feel at least somewhat safe. Despite that setback, the group was heartened when medical personnel came out of the compound to check on the children.
Thankfully, the area around the compound saw no violence or looting that night.
"Nobody even wandered down the street upon us," Thompson said.
'YOU MIGHT AS WELL GO TO THE BORDER'
Thompson and the others woke up on Jan. 29 after a rough night's sleep intending to obtain not only the Dominican Republic document but also a Haitian document they had learned about.
They spent nearly the entire day looking for both documents -- "going to every government agency we were told to go to" -- while at the same time entertaining and feeding the 33 children. The friendly Haitian policeman they had met during their first day in Haiti assisted them throughout the day, guiding them to the necessary buildings.
The group attempted to obtain the Haitian document, going to a Port-au-Prince child services office and also a Haitian child services office, but got a similar story each time:
"They would say, 'This is a brand new document, we actually don't have the document' or 'We don't have anyone here to sign the document. You'll have to go to [another] office to get it.'"
The final Haitian government office they visited wasn't any more helpful, and -- in hindsight -- may have helped lead to their arrest. After Silsby showed an official there the documents she had been given by the two orphanages, the person, Thompson said, responded, "This document that you have, you might as well take it to the border and see if they'll let you cross with this document because this other document -- that everyone knows is a new document to have -- nobody has it. And nobody is here to actually produce the document."
So, late that afternoon, the group decided to head to the border.
"We made that decision based off what a government official told us to do," Thompson said. "We felt we made every attempt to be above board with this process."
The bus left Port-au-Prince and got to the border around 6 o'clock.
"As soon we got there, Laura stepped out and she had all the documentations with her," Thompson said. "She was explaining to the border guards, 'Here's the situation, here's where we're going.' ... They felt comfortable that everything she was sharing was on the up and up -- that's the feeling we got. Then there began to be some dialogue amongst themselves in Creole or French about this new document that Haiti was now requiring for transfer of orphans. They were in a bit of an argument, some of the guys saying, 'This is all they need,' and others saying, 'No, they've got to have another document.'"
The border guards called the chief border guard, and Silsby and Thompson went into his office.
"She was telling these guys the same story," Thompson said. "The border guards were listening, the chief border guard's listening. You can tell that he's confused."
The chief border guard made several calls and then got off the phone and broke the bad news: "I cannot let you cross the border." The group, he said, must go back to Port-au-Prince to get the Haitian document that no one could provide.
"He did not arrest us," Thompson said. "So we complied and said, 'OK.'"
But the group now had the same problem it had the night before: 33 kids, with no place to sleep. Desperate, the Baptists made a proposal to the chief border guard: They would stay at the border that night, and the next morning, the bus driver would take Silsby to Port-au-Prince to get the document, with the others staying at the border until she got back. The chief border guard agreed to the plan, and the bus was moved into the gated area.
The Baptists and the border guards -- many of whom had grown up orphans and who appreciated what the Baptists were doing -- then began working together to ready the children for bed. Their sleeping area would be a porch area, with blankets spread out.
"[The border guards] were very grateful and expressing a lot of gratitude to us for what we were doing to help their country," Thompson said. "We got a good sense of reception from them."
Soon, a group of medical personnel showed up who had, somehow, gotten word about the children. These officials ran a medical facility in Haiti five miles from the border and offered to give the children physicals -- including de-worming medication -- the next day. The Baptists agreed. The new plan for Saturday -- OK'd again by the chief border guard -- now had the bus dropping the children off at the medical facility while Silsby went to Port-au-Prince to obtain the document. The Baptists' frustrating predicament now seemed to have a silver lining, and, perhaps, things would fall into place the next day. That hint of optimism soon turned to joy that night when the conversation between the Baptists and the border guards turned spiritual.
'I WANT TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN'
With the children falling to sleep and the group members preparing MREs (meals, ready to eat), the border guards and Baptists practiced their lingual skills -- the border guards' limited English and the Baptists their rough Creole. Out of the blue, one of the border guards, speaking through a translator, told the Baptists, "I want to become a Christian and I want to know how to become a Christian." The Baptists, amazed at what had just been requested, led the man to the Lord.
"Our act of compassion upon his country, God was using that to draw this man to Himself -- I'm sure with a lot of other things," Thompson said. "Because of what just happened we became very satisfied that this was God's ordained moment for this man's life."
The Baptists rejoiced with the man, and the experience made the fact that they were still in Haiti -- and would be sleeping without a bed for a second straight night -- significantly more palatable. It would be their final night sleeping in freedom before being placed in jail.
They awoke the next morning ready to tie up all the loose ends and finally get the proper documents to travel into the Dominican Republic -- where a church group from Idaho awaited -- but soon were told that there had been a change of plans. They would not be allowed to take the children to the medical center, and Silsby would not be allowed to travel to Port-au-Prince alone. Instead, everyone -- the 10 Baptists and the 33 children -- were told to board the bus and travel to Haitian child services, which just happened to be housed in the same building in Port-au-Prince as the police station. They were not given any detailed explanation.
"Our understanding was we were going back to get the documentation," Thompson said. "So we complied."
UNICEF GETS INVOLVED
The bus passed the medical compound en route to Port-au-Prince and arrived at the police station around 8 or 9 o'clock that morning. Ironically, it was one of the buildings the group had been at the day before trying to obtain the Haitian document that officials had been unable to find.
The police escorted Silsby and her translator into an office, leaving behind the other nine Baptists and 33 children in a waiting area. The discussion between the police and Silsby lasted more than an hour, and she exited the meeting optimistic that everything was OK.
"Laura came out of this meeting pretty satisfied that the police were ready to put us back on the bus with the kids and head back to the border because she had produced the documentation from the orphanage directors," Thompson said. "She told them the whole story. We were actually in a building where we had been the day before trying to get documentation. So she was able to say, 'We've already been here, we've tried this. Nobody was here to get this paperwork for us.'"
Yet they weren't allowed to leave the police station just yet because a representative from child services was on her way to the building to meet Silsby. After that -- at least they thought -- they would be good to go.
Finally, the woman arrived, and Silsby and the others knew something could be amiss. The woman was a UNICEF worker who Silsby recognized from previous visits to child services offices. She walked into the building with a group of UNICEF employees, all of them wearing shirts with the UNICEF logo. A "spiritual shift," Thompson said, took place.
Still, though, there was no reason to worry. "You guys are going to be OK," policemen told the team. But the group soon began questioning that logic. The lengthy meeting between the UNICEF woman, Silsby and the police had barely begun when the other UNICEF employees brought cameras and microphones into the waiting area to film video of the kids, talking to them in Creole. The children began crying, and the footage made it into news broadcasts around the world.
"This was a complete setup," Thompson said. "They were beginning to build their case for us as being kidnappers and child traffickers."
Even worse for the Baptists, the UNICEF employees told the children that the 10 were kidnappers who wanted to sell the kids into slavery or sell their organs, Thompson said.
"What those cameras won't show -- which is ironically amazing -- is that these kids were sitting in our laps, crying on our shoulders and they were not running away from us," Thompson said. "We're the very people that the UNICEF people were saying we kidnapped them. There's no policemen that is taking these kids away from us at this point. Nobody's removed us from the kids. We were still in complete care of the kids. They're not even turning to the policemen. For us, that really began to tell us that we were right in the middle of something very spiritually active. For us, it was clear that there was a spiritual battle that we were right smack dab in the middle of."
After the UNICEF cameras left, though, the children calmed down, and the Baptists were allowed to go back to their bus where they got food and water to feed the kids. With the meeting dragging on, the kids ate, and everyone waited for a report from Silsby.
Finally -- about an hour and 45 minutes after it started -- the meeting ended. As if on cue, the UNICEF camera crew once again put microphones in the faces of the kids, who, once again, began crying and screaming. The UNICEF woman -- whose name Thompson still does not know -- then headed to a press conference in an adjacent part of the building, where she announced that the Baptists had just been charged with kidnapping and child trafficking. Thompson watched the press conference, as did some of the children. A policeman actually interpreted the press conference for Thompson. It was a surreal scene.
"He's just standing next to me, he was not acting on the charges that she's telling the press conference about," Thompson said. "And still, no large group of policemen has showed up. Nobody has showed up with handcuffs. We're still taking care of the kids, and she's telling the world we're kidnappers and traffickers.... They're definitely still crying and I'm sure heavy in thought about what was going on. It's hard to know really what these kids are processing in their minds."
Soon, though, the 10 Baptists were arrested, beginning an ordeal that forever changed their lives. That night would be Day 1 of nearly three weeks in jail for eight of them and 100-plus days in prison for Silsby.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. To read Baptist Press' story about the group's time in jail, visit www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=33135