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Baptist’s Haiti story ‘radically different’
Michael Foust, Baptist Press
May 18, 2010
22 MIN READ TIME

Baptist’s Haiti story ‘radically different’

Baptist’s Haiti story ‘radically different’
Michael Foust, Baptist Press
May 18, 2010

(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 — 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.

For instance:

  • 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 in jail — 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 then 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.’”

In a video aired by CBS News in February, several members of the Baptist volunteer team are shown in the hours after their arrest with a number of Haitian children they were seeking to relocate to an orphanage that group leader Laura Silsby was planning to open in the Dominican Republic.

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 a nearly three-week ordeal

for eight of them and a 100-plus-day ordeal for Silsby.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.)