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 he 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 Republic. 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, 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 sole 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. Up 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 Republic 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 orphan directors that they were overcrowded and had quake orphans who could be moved to the Dominican Republic. 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 Republic 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 safely. They also asked their three translators, who 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 orphans 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 completely 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, birthdate and