PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — It’s hard to imagine what is going through the minds of 17 missionaries and their children who were kidnapped Saturday by gun-wielding gang members outside of Haiti’s capital city.
What must they be feeling inside a locked room, as their captors yell, threaten or even beat them, as captors have done with others? How are they coping if they’re being denied food or water? What do they make of nameless men scrolling through their cell phones randomly calling numbers and demanding outlandish sums of money?
It’s hard to imagine. I know. Because I imagine it myself. As someone who goes to Haiti all the time to oversee an orphanage, much as the members of that charity group were doing, I have thought about the scenario many times.
Kidnapping is not a new worry in Haiti. It has been going on for a while — especially after the United Nations forces left in 2017 and the streets grew increasingly dangerous. This year, with the recent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, kidnapping has become easier for gangs like 400 Mowozo, who reportedly abducted the missionary group. They pull up to a vehicle or an unsuspecting pedestrian, block passage, wave a gun and demand the victim go with them.
It’s easy to tell yourself such things only happen to others, and while that will almost always be true, it isn’t always.
There are precautions you can take. We take them all. Don’t go out if it’s not necessary. Don’t let people know you’re with a foreign organization. Travel with security. Avoid the known dangerous areas.
Sadly, the members of the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries who were abducted over the weekend were traveling in a noted bad zone, where gangs have asserted control of the streets. That doesn’t make them at fault.
It just increased the odds of something bad happening.
What are you even doing there?
But bad things happen all the time in Haiti. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Violent protests. Corrupt governments.
So why do people like me keep going back? What was that group from Christian Aid Ministries doing here? Why have people continued to flock to Haiti despite endless State Department warnings?
The answer is easy. At least for me. It’s the face of every child that smiles at being given a real meal. It’s the small body that curls into your lap, pulling your arms down for security. It’s the laughter. The singing. The abject joy at blowing bubbles or shaking bodies to a catchy song. The purity of childhoods unpolluted by iPhones, computers, TV, or overindulgent toys.
People aren’t foolish. They don’t risk safety for no reason. They do it because there is something bigger to be gained, something worth a risk.
They do it because not to do it means children like those at the orphanage those missionaries were visiting, or the ones we care for at the Have Faith Haiti Mission, might go without food, education, clean water, might even die from something completely avoidable.
They do it because they see — and this is the most important point — that the risk they face is tiny compared to what the average Haitian has to deal with every single day.
Everyone is at risk
These kidnappings aren’t reserved for visiting do-gooders. More often than not, the victims are average Haitians, street vendors or students, or locals going to work.
Of the 628 kidnappings recorded since January, only around 30 are foreigners. The rest are Haitians who are already amongst the poorest people in the world. When they are plucked off the street, the kidnappers tell them to call their families and sell the refrigerator, or the cellphone, and bring them the paltry sum it fetches.
Understand, these gang members aren’t making a political statement. They have no cause. They just want money. Fast money. And with a collapsed government and a depleted, weary, overmatched police force, they can get that money almost as quickly as they want.
It’s the reason people like myself, and others who make Haiti a regular stop, wish outside international forces would get more involved. The security of the years the UN forces were in Haiti now seems like Shangri-La. A relatively small American presence could surely deter the gangs and their reign of terror, allowing the country to try and find its footing after an assassination and another earthquake.
Time for the world to lend a hand
As for those who say, “Why the heck should we get involved with Haiti, it’s got nothing to do with us?”, well, read a little history. From 1915 until 1934 the U.S. occupied Haiti. We held its money. Franklin Roosevelt, when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, oversaw the writing of Haiti’s constitution. We are part of Haiti’s fabric, like it or not.
It’s an hour and a half from Miami. It’s a neighbor with a shared history. It’s a country with an amazing backstory, and a love of freedom that rivals our own. We threw off the yoke of the British. They threw off the yoke of the French — only they started as slaves and still did it.
They’ve been paying a price ever since.
It’s bad enough that people have to live in abject poverty. They shouldn’t have to live in terror. The U.S. and international community should step in and save this crumbling situation, before any more busloads of visitors are taken, before any more average citizens just trying to shop for food are snatched and held at gunpoint.
Until that happens, regular folks from around the world, like me, will continue to go there. Because it’s the right thing to do.
It’s hard to imagine what those poor captives are thinking in captivity. But it’s not hard to imagine what they were thinking just moments before, when they departed that orphanage and were heading home.
They thought they were making a difference. That idea deserves to be honored. And it deserves to be protected.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.