(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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“(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
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
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
“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,
“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.)