PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – There is not one orphan among the 33 children that a U.S. Baptist group tried to take from Haiti in a do-it-yourself rescue mission following a devastating earthquake, The Associated Press has determined.
Their testimony echoed that of parents in the mountain town of Callabas, outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, who told the AP on Feb. 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 3-month-old, is locked in a trance-like state but sometimes erupts into fits of hysteria.
She and other parents said they relinquished their children to the U.S. 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 told the AP 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 Wednesday on their own recognizance and flew home to the United States.
Silsby, who has told the AP she is 47 although other sources give her age as 40, and her assistant, Charisa Coulter, 24, remain jailed as the investigating judge interviews officials at the orphanages the two visited prior to the devastating Jan. 12 quake. They are set to appear in court again Tuesday.
As they left the jail and boarded a U.S. Embassy van, the freed Baptists waved and thanked Viellard, who later called them "great people who were doing good for Haiti."
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 neighboring Dominican Republic in the post-quake chaos.
Silsby had been working since last summer to create an orphanage. After the quake, she hastily organized 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. Sainvil had been a frequent visitor to the neighborhood 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 stone mason.
Chesnel's wife, 33-year-old Bertho Magonie, said her husband persuaded her to give away their children — ages 12, 7, 3, and 1 — and a 10-year-old nephew living with them because their house had collapsed and the kids were sick.
"They were vomiting. They had fevers, diarrhea and headaches," she said, leaning against the wall of the grimy two-room hovel the couple shares.
In a telephone interview from the United States on Saturday, Sainvil confirmed the Chesnels' story. He said a collapsed building adjacent to where the children lived held six or seven corpses.
He said he first met Silsby on Jan. 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.
Sainvil, a former orphan who says his nondenominational Haiti Sharing Jesus Ministry has 25 churches in the countryside, said the two agreed to meet again in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 13 to get more children.
The day after he met Silsby, Sainvil collected the 13 children from Citron. A day after that, the missionaries' bus was halted at the Dominican border and they were arrested. Sainvil, meanwhile, became sick with vomiting and diarrhea and decided to fly back to the U.S. on a military transport plane, he said.
He denied leaving out of fear he might be arrested.
"I wasn't doing anything wrong," he said.
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 are often misunderstood by people in the developed worked who don't realize that more than half of the 380,000 children in Haiti's orphanages are not orphans. Many have parents who — even before the quake — were simply unable to care for them.
The problem is that some of the "orphans" end up as sex slaves or are given jobs doing housework in exchange for food and shelter — and sometimes school. It is precisely because of that problem that, after the quake, Haiti's government banned all adoptions except those approved before the disaster.
Sainvil said he went to Citron for children because he knew people there were desperate: He had been sleeping under tarps with them. Food was barely trickling in, medical care was just becoming available and hundreds of decomposing bodies were buried beneath the neighborhood's collapsed homes.
Under one of the blue tarps sheltering the Chesnels' homeless neighbors, 27-year-old Maletid Desilien lay Saturday on a bed of two soiled rugs. Only her eyes peered out from under a bedsheet.
"She has been like that ever since someone told her she will never get the kids back," said her husband, Dieulifanne Desilien, who works in a T-shirt factory.
That was eight days ago. Most of the time she lies catatonic, he said, warning a reporter not to go near because she periodically has fits.
"She would get up, take her clothes off and run around pulling her hair out," Desilien, 40, said of his wife. "She would jump up from sleep and say, 'Bring me my kids.'"
He said she only calms down and is able to sleep after speaking by phone with her children, who are at an orphanage in the capital run by the Austrian-based SOS Children's Villages charity.
The day they arrived, orphanage officials said, the Desiliens' 3-month-old daughter, Koestey, was so dehydrated she had to be hospitalized. The other children are ages 7, 6 and 4. Their father — but not their mother — has visited them.
Desilien said a police commander has assured him that he will get the children back. The Social Welfare ministry, however, has yet to decide whether some or all of the 33 children will be returned to their parents.
"My wife is sick so I have to find a way to get the children back," Seselien said.
Associated Press Writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.