- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

CARREFOUR, Haiti There's a dirty secret in America's back yard.

Hundreds of thousands of children are living in slavery in Haiti taken from their families in rural villages or given up by destitute parents for the promise of a better life in cities like Port-au-Prince, Jacmel or Les Cayes.

The promise is rarely kept.

Instead, the children, some as young as 3, are whipped and abused, forced to fetch water, mop floors, wash dishes and care for babies not much younger than they are. They are forbidden to eat at the table, and they sleep on concrete or dirt floors. They rarely get any schooling.

A U.N. study in 1998 estimated there are 300,000 such children known as "restavecs," a Creole noun derived from the French "reste avec," meaning "stays with."

That such children even exist came to widespread attention with the 1998 publication of the autobiography of Haitian-born Jean-Robert Cadet, who had been a restavec.

This year, he returned to Haiti and heard the stories of other restavecs.

They are children like:

• Modelene Doristan, a quiet girl about 8 years old, who was brought to Foyer Maurice Sixto, a shelter in western Port-au-Prince, by police about a year ago. "They beat me up all the time at the woman's house," she said. Modelene whispered, pausing to pick at a small scab just above her knee as she talked about her owner.

• Naki MacPherson, a small boy with dark scars on his forehead and chest, who looks about 7 but doesn't know his age. His owner beat him with a rock. He is safe this day, playing a game of marbles at Foyer L'Escale, a shelter in northern Port-au-Prince for restavecs who have run away.

• A 13-year-old restavec girl whose owners burned her severely when they covered her with hair spray and set it on fire.

"They lit the spray on the child to find out if the spray was really flammable," said Haitian journalist Godfroy Boursiquot. The girl, who has lived at Foyer L'Escale for three years, also told Mr. Boursiquot she was sexually abused by the 18-year-old and 20-year-old men who owned her.

About three-fourths of restavecs are girls. They are, surprisingly, slaves not of Haiti's rich, but of those too poor to hire domestic help.

"Some of them live in an owner's place that is worse than the place they were living in the countryside," said caretaker Clermei de Rameau, better known as the maternal figure "Mamy George" at Foyer Maurice Sixto.

"Some of them have slashes on their backs," Mrs. Rameau said. "Some of them get food at home; some of them don't."

There are even a few restavecs who work for families that live in the street, said Mr. Boursiquot, the journalist.

Many owners are reluctant to send restavecs to public school, not only because they have to pay for books and uniforms, but because they lose hours the child could be working.

Guilnave Dufrene, a restavec who lives in southwest Port-au-Prince, only attends school because his owner's employer insisted.

The owner, Vilcin Desir, isn't pleased about that. "Before he started with school, he was working more and harder," said Mr. Desir, a groundskeeper.

Guilnave does hard chores for Mr. Desir and sleeps on a concrete porch. Even so, he says he would rather stay than return to his family. Here, at least, he is getting an education.

Most restavecs, alone and defenseless, live in constant fear of abandonment and punishment. Because this form of child slavery is a long-standing custom, usually no one intervenes.

The Haitian National Labor Code only makes it illegal to use children under 12 as restavecs and obliges owners to pay for a medical exam for restavecs every six months, but the owners usually cannot or will not pay for medical care of restavecs. Sick ones are sometimes abandoned.

"We think that children should be a priority," said Alexandre Gustave of Foyer L'Escale, the restavec home in Drouillard. "But in this country they are not."

The restavec system has existed nearly since the time Haiti was founded by freed African slaves in 1804 and has been virtually ignored by the worldwide aid community, by the United States and by Haitians themselves.

The unstable Haitian government, which has historically looked the other away at child slavery, is only beginning to acknowledge its thriving existence.

Without a cohesive structure to organize their fight to free the restavecs, individual efforts by dozens of private organizations, human-rights and labor groups and individuals like Mr. Cadet, the former restavec turned author, accomplish relatively little.

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