A year after 17 North American missionaries were kidnapped in Haiti, starting a two-month ordeal before they eventually became free, the agency that sent them did not make a permanent return, and many other international groups also downsized their work. there.
The kidnapping highlighted a deteriorating security situation that has worsened over the past year, with Haitian leaders calling for the deployment of foreign troops to help break the crippling grip of gang activity and protests.
The missionary group, made up of five minors ranging from a newborn to a teenager, was kidnapped on October 16, 2021, as they returned from a visit to an orphanage supported by their organization, Christian Aid Ministries.
It was the largest kidnapping of its kind in recent years, although hundreds of kidnappings have targeted Haitian citizens and attracted little international attention.
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According to CAM, hostage-takers from the infamous 400 Mawozo gang demanded a ransom of $ 1 million for each victim. After two were released on medical grounds and three others were redeemed by a third party for an undisclosed amount, the remaining 12 were released on December 16 after what they described as an overnight escape.
The stalemate came just months after a presidential assassination and an earthquake that killed and injured thousands of people.
Currently, basic supplies such as fuel and water have dwindled since a powerful gang took control of a major fueling terminal in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Protesters blocked roads to protest rising fuel prices and gas stations and schools closed.
North American CAM workers visited Haiti last year, “checking things out as best they could,” spokesman Weston Showalter said. But there is no timetable for a permanent return.
“It seems that things are more difficult there than ever,” he said, adding that the work of Haitian staff is also hampered by the crisis.
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The kidnapped missionaries included 16 Americans and one Canadian. Christian Aid Ministries, based in Berlin, Ohio, draws support from conservative Mennonites, Amish, Brothers and related groups. The agency, which has been operating in Haiti since the 1980s, is evaluating the 2021 lessons.
“We have become hypersensitive to risk,” Showalter said. “So above all the question of the presence of women and children there, I would say that it is a great question of discussion”.
Other religious agencies are also struggling to respond to Haiti’s plight.
“There is no clear path to follow,” said Alex Morse, regional assistant director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Church World Service, a partnership of more than 30 Christian denominations and communions in the United States that provides development assistance and relief. in case of disasters around the world.
In August, CWS decided to run its remaining programs in Haiti with local staff only: agriculture and food security programs in the Northwest, housing construction and social support for children in the Southwest.
Morse worked in the country after a devastating earthquake in 2011 and remembers that many Haitians have found resilience in their faith in God.
It’s different now.
“I’m hearing people say they have lost hope,” he said. “People who were ready to turn to their faith, we hear less about it.”
Patrick Nelson, a Haitian who is the top representative of the CWS in the country, said that children and students “want to be in school and study right now, taking courses, but schools and universities are closed.”
However, he said that people are discouraged but not desperate.
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“If people didn’t have faith in God or hoped that things might be different in Haiti, they wouldn’t be out on the streets demanding a change,” Nelson said in an email.
One of the members of the CWS is the Brothers Church, which has been offering programs for more than 20 years in Haiti and has 30 congregations there. It had a main base in Croix-des-Bouquets, near Port-au-Prince, but the area has been an epicenter of gang activity, according to Jeffrey Boshart, manager of the church’s Global Food Initiative.
Earlier this year one of the program’s drivers was kidnapped – albeit later released – and his vehicle was stolen, Boshart said, prompting the church to suspend all its activities in the Port-au region. Prince. The remaining programs, which involve agriculture, clean water and house construction, are mostly in rural areas away from the capital and run entirely by Haitians, he added.
Boshart said the church also slashed the program of a mobile medical clinic because many of the Haitian doctors who attended fled to the United States.
Catholic Relief Services has more than 200 staff members in the country, nearly all Haitians, but they have largely worked remotely. Many of their educational and health initiatives are suspended.
“The roads are blocked and they cannot travel to the office,” said Akim Kikonda, national representative of the CRS. “There is no gasoline to drive their cars and in some cases there is no internet in the office.”
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He added: “You can imagine our frustration … when we see that the needs are greater than they have ever been, but we are unable to meet those needs.”
He hopes international supporters will rally behind Haiti.
“Haiti has been close to the limit so many times and has always been able to come back,” said Kikonda. “This time I see a very difficult and stimulating situation, hoping there is a light, but personally I still can’t see it.”
Living Waters for the World, a U.S.-based nonprofit that provides clean water systems to numerous countries, has managed to continue its work in Haiti because much of it is done by Haitians, said Bob McCoy. , moderator of his Haitian network coordination team.
International visits continue, albeit carefully planned.
“The kidnapping was a very unfortunate situation,” McCoy said. “Do we care about that? You can bet. We try to stay smart about what we’re doing. It doesn’t stop us from going.”
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Meanwhile, a new book released by CAM provides the official account of the kidnapping and includes interviews with hostages, their families and CAM officials.
“Kidnapped in Haiti,” written by Katrina Hoover Lee, reveals that while CAM had a long-standing no-ransom policy, council members weren’t as busy as they thought in the face of a real crisis.
In internal debates, the book says, some have wondered, “Did it make sense to risk human lives for a matter that was not spelled out in the Scriptures?”
The ministry eventually agreed to offer humanitarian aid to the kidnappers, which they refused. He then reluctantly accepted a third party’s offer to pay the ransom.
Showalter said CAM “does not yet have details on who paid or what amount it included.” The ransom took place in December and the hostages were told they would all be released. But they said that due to internal gang conflicts, the kidnappers only released three.
The remaining hostages prayed and worshiped together every day. They also discussed intensely whether to attempt an escape. Eventually, everyone decided to give it a try. According to their reports, they opened a barricaded door after midnight on December 16 and walked miles to safety.
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Showalter said the ministry continues its work in other countries and will consider returning to Haiti.
One of the former hostages, Dale Wideman, is returning to the mission field for a time in Liberia, where CAM provides medical clinics.
His experience in Haiti motivated him to help others. “He just reminded me of how much I was given, growing up in Canada in a good solid home,” said Wideman, of Moorefield, Ontario. He recalled the extreme poverty in Haiti, with many young people joining gangs “trying every possible way to get a meal and make some money”.
“I’d like to say I wouldn’t make those choices if I were in their situation, but I have no idea,” said Wideman, 25. “Our worlds are so different. I feel I have to give back.”