1 The Riches of the Poor
For our purposes, let’s say that the center of the moral universe is in Room S-3800 of the UN Secretariat, Manhattan. From here, you are some five hours from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl. Your slave will come in any color you like, as Henry Ford said, as long as it’s black. Maximum age: fifteen. He or she can be used for anything. Sex or domestic labor are the most frequent uses, but it’s up to you.
Before you go, let’s be clear on what you are buying. A slave is a human being who is forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. Agreed? Good. You may have thought you missed your chance to own a slave. Maybe you imagined that slavery died along with the 360,000 Union soldiers whose blood fertilized the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Perhaps you assumed that there was meaning behind the dozen international conventions banning the slave trade, or that the deaths of 30 million people in world wars had spread freedom across the globe.
But you’re in luck. By our mere definition, you are living at a time when there are more slaves than at any point in history. If you’re going to buy one in five hours, however, you’ve really got to stop navel-gazing over things like law and the moral advance of humanity. Get a move on.
First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport. If you choose the Queensboro Bridge to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the drive should take under an hour. With no baggage, you’ll speed through security in time to make a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Flying time: three hours.
The final hour is the strangest. After disembarking, you will cross the tarmac to the terminal where drummers in vodou getup and a dancing midget greet you with song. Based on Transportation Security Administration warnings posted in the departure terminal at JFK, you might expect abject chaos at Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport. Instead, you find orderly lines leading to the visa stamp, no bribes asked, a short wait for your bag, then a breeze through customs. Outside the airport, the cabbies and porters will be aggressive, but not threatening. Assuming you speak no Creole, find an English-speaking porter and offer him $20 to translate for the day.
Ask your translator to hail the most common form of transport, a tap-tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a brightly colored canopy. You will have to take a couple of these, but they only cost 10 gourdes (25 cents) each. Usually handpainted with signs in broken English or Creole, tap-taps often include the wordsMY GOD orJESUS. MY GOD IT’S MY LIFE reads one; another announcesWELCOME TO JESUS . Many are ornate, featuring windshields covered in frill, doodads, and homages to such figures as Che Guevara, Ronaldinho, or reggae legend Gregory Isaacs. The driver’s navigation is based on memory, instinct. There will be no air conditioning. Earplugs are useful, as the sound system, which cost more than the rig itself, will make your chest vibrate with the beats of Haitian pop and American hip-hop. Up to twenty people may accompany you: five square inches on a wooden bench will miraculously accommodate a woman with a posterior the size of a tractor tire. Prepare your spine.
You’ll want to head up Route de Delmas toward the suburb of Pétionville, where many of the country’s wealthiest thirty families—who control the nation’s economy—maintain a pied-à-terre. As you drive southeast away from the sea, the smells change from rotting fish to rotting vegetables. Exhaust fumes fill the air. You’ll pass a billboard featuring a smiling girl in pigtails and the words:Give me your hand. Give me tomorrow. Down with Child Servitude. Chances are, like the majority of Haitians, you can’t read French or Creole. Like them, you ignore the sign.
Heading out of the airport, you’ll pass two UN peacekeepers, one with a Brazilian patch, the other with an Argentine flag. As you pass the blue helmets, smile, wave, and receive dumbfounded stares in return. The United Nations also has Jordanians and Peruvians here, parked in APVs fifteen minutes northwest, along the edge of the hyperviolent Cité Soleil slum, the poorest and most densely populated six square miles in the poorest and most densely populated country in the hemisphere. The peacekeepers don’t go in much, neither do the national police. If they do, the gangsters that run the place start shooting. Best to steer clear, although you’d get a cheap price on children there. You might even get offered a child gratis.
You’ll notice the streets of the Haitian capital are, like the tap-taps, overstuffed, banged up, yet colorful. The road surfaces range from bad to terrible, and grind even the toughest SUVs down to the chassis. Parts of Delmas are so steep that the truck may sputter and die under the exertion.
Port-au-Prince was built to accommodate about 150,000 people, and hasn’t seen too many centrally planned upgrades since 1804. Over the last fifty years, some 2 million people, a quarter of the nation’s population, have arrived from the countryside. They’ve brought their animals. Chickens scratch on side streets, and boys lead prizefighting cocks on string leashes. Monstrously fat black pigs root in sooty, putrid garbage piled eight feet high on street corners or even higher in enormous pits that drop off sidewalks and wind behind houses.
A crowd swells out of a Catholic church broadcasting a fervent mass. Most Haitians are Catholic. Despite the efforts of Catholic priests, most also practice vodou. In the countryside, vodou is often all they practice.
You may see a white jeep or van with a siren, a red cross, and the wordAMBULENCE handpainted on it. You might assume this is an ambulance. It is not. These private vehicles only carry dead people. Public health is spotty at best. The annual budget for the health care of the UN peacekeepers in Haiti is greater than the annual budget for the country’s Health Ministry. It’s a bad idea to get sick here, as I was to find out.
At night, those with homes pack into tin-roofed, plywood, or cinderblock dwellings, on dirt roads bisected by gullies of raw sewage. Most people loot electricity from street wires to enjoy a light or two until rolling blackouts enshroud the city and end the sounds of dancehall reggae and hip-hop. Then total darkness reigns, and total silence, save for the spasmodic barking of dogs, and the nightly gunfire that can be heard from Cité Soleil to Pétionville. Only the generator-driven lights of the fortified UN compounds illuminate the haze over the city.
But now, in the daytime, many Haitians, particularly the 70 percent with no formal employment, will be on the sweaty, steamy, dusty streets. When either gender needs to urinate, they simply find a quiet pole or a ditch. No point going home for relief since few have indoor plumbing. Haitians take great pride in their appearance, but as more than three quarters live on less than two dollars per day, they don’t have many pieces in their wardrobe. Some beg, like the thirtysomething woman sitting in the middle of Delmas, one horribly infected breast, glistening with pus, hanging out of her shirt.
Some hustle. There are more than 10,000 street kids, mostly boys as young as six, some selling unprotected sex for $1.75. Haiti has the highest prevalence of HIV infection outside of sub-Saharan Africa, and Haitians who believe sex with virgins protects against, or even cures, AIDS have driven up the price of such intercourse to $5.00. Haiti has also become a magnet for sex tourists and pedophiles. One left a review of the children in an online chatroom: “The younger ones are even more kinker [sic] than the older women…. Park on the street and tell them to go at it!!!!!!!!! If anyone sees you they just ignore you. No police but the multi-national military force is still here.” Locals say that the main contribution of the peacekeepers to Haiti’s economy comes via the brothels. Opposite a UN camp on an otherwise desolate road outside of Port-au-Prince, Le Perfection nightclub does booming business.
Most city dwellers who work do so on an ad hoc basis. A doubled-over, shirtless man strains under a donkey cart laden with the burnt-out carcass of a car. An elderly woman balances a hundred eggs in five tiers on her head and nimbly navigates a pulverized side road. A young man pushes up the bustling sidewalk with two queen-sized mattresses on his head. The tinkling of shoeshine bells is constant. An old man—probably no more than fifty-seven, the average life span for a Haitian—pushes a wheelbarrow filled with empty bottles. He catches you smiling at his threadbare, oversized T-shirt bearing an image of Snoopy, Woodstock, and the wordsWORLD’S MOST HUGGABLE GRANDMA. Bubbling with good humor, he shoots back a toothless grin. Many peddle trinkets, bouillon cubes, single-shot plastic bags of water, plantain chips, “Megawatt” energy soda, or vegetables in various states of decay.
A man hawks cell phone chargers with which he swats stray dogs as they slink by. Another man on Delmas sells cowhiderigwaz whips and leather martinets. Those are for beating a different kind of creature. “Timoun se ti bet,” a Haitian saying relates: “Children are little animals.” “Ti neg se baton ki fe I mache,” goes another: “It is the whip which makes the little guy walk.”
You are now about halfway up Delmas, and slaves are everywhere. Assuming that this is your first trip to Haiti, you won’t be able to identify them. But to a lower-middle-class Haitian, their status is “written in blood.” Some are as young as three or four years old. But they’ll always be the small ones, even if they’re older. The average fifteen-year-old child slave is 1.5 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than the average free fifteen-year-old. They may have burns from cooking for their overseer’s family over an open fire; or scars from beatings, sometimes in public, with the martinet, electrical cables, or wood switches. They wear faded, outsized castoffs, and walk barefoot, in sandals or, if they are lucky, oversized shoes.
If you arrive in the afternoon, you may see their tiny necks and delicate skulls straining as they tote five-gallon buckets of water on their heads while navigating broken glass and shattered roads. Or you might see them picking up their overseer’s smartly dressed children from school.
These are therestavèks , the “stay-withs,” as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work from before dawn until deep night. The violence in their lives is unyielding.
These are the children who won’t look you in the eyes.
At Delmas 69,yell “merci,” hop out, pay the driver, and turn left onto the relatively well-kept side street with overhanging but not overgrown trees. Any time of day, you will find here a group of four or five men, standing in front of Le Réseau (The Network) barbershop.
As you approach, one man steps forward. “Are you looking to get a person?” he asks.
Meet Benavil Lebhom. Hail-fellow, he smiles easily, and is an easy man to do business with, if not an easy man to trust. Benavil, thirty-eight, has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored striped polo shirt, a gold rope suspending a coin and a cross, and Doc Martens knock-offs. His colleagues approach. One extends his hand, offers his card, and introduces himself as a “businessman.”
Benavil is what is known in Haiti as acourtier , a broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. But most employees he places are atypical job seekers. Two thirds of his sales are child slaves.
Like most Haitians, Benavil is from the countryside, but he moved to Port-au-Prince twenty-five years ago. He started in construction, but in 1989 he switched to real estate sales and founded a company calledSOPNIBEL . Soon he discovered a more lucrative commodity: human beings. The biggest year for child selling was 1995, shortly after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to power, and UN sanctions were lifted. In the cities, people had a bit more money, and could afford small luxuries again. Benavil sold twenty to thirty kids in a good week then, and made upward of $200 per month. Nationwide the number of restavèks ballooned from 109,000 in 1992 to 300,000, or one in ten Haitian children, in 1998, to 400,000 in 2002.
Originally from a hamlet called La Vallée in the underdeveloped and forbidding southern highlands of La Selle, Benavil sired two children there although he never married. It is from those fertile mountains that he and his fellowcourtiers harvest their best-selling crops.
Benavil’s business works like this: A client approaches him about acquiring a restavèk. Normally, this client is lower middle class—a UNICEF study found the average income for a slaveowning household in Haiti was under $30 per month. After per capita GDPs were torpedoed by the economic chaos that followed two coups, sanctions, and colossal government mismanagement even in peacetime, the monthly incomes sank further. Lower-class urbanites also acquire restavèks, but, unable to afford a middleman like Benavil, a friend or relative performs his service free of charge.
A child’s price is negotiable, but Benavil is bound by agreements—which he won’t detail for you—with the capital’s othercourtiers , whom he estimates number at least 3,000. “We do have a formula,” he says.
Clients then place their order. Some want boys; most want girls. Some want specific skills. “They’ll ask for someone who knows how to bake,” says Benavil; “sometimes they’ll ask for a boy who knows how to work an oven.” Most want children from the countryside. No one wants children from urban blights like Cité Soleil. Although their parents would give them away, clients know street-smart kids would escape at the earliest opportunity. Older kids, too, are out of favor as even rural ones will be willful, independent. Most children Benavil sells are around age twelve. The youngest slaves he brokers, he claims, are seven.
After a client has ordered, Benavil’s colleague in La Vallée begins working to convince an impoverished rural family to give up its child. Normally, all it takes is the promise that the child will be well nourished and educated. Urban Haitians are poor; rural families are dirt-poor. Out of every 1,000 urban children, 112 will die before age five; in the countryside, the figure is 149. By comparison, in the neighboring Dominican Republic, it’s 35; in war-torn Congo, 108.
Rarely are the parents paid. They yield their children becausecourtiers dangle the promise of school like a diamond necklace. More than 80 percent of Haiti’s schools are private, and urban high schools cost $385 per year; this sum is beyond the annual income of the typical Haitian, and particularly out of reach for rural parents, most of whose income goes toward food. The average Haitian boy receives 2 years of schooling; the average girl, 1.3. In the countryside, where only a handful of schools exist, most children never attend school at all.
But the dangled diamond necklace is a fake, as 80 percent of restavèks do not go to school. Those who do must fight to go, are only allowed to attend when they finish their labor, and have to find the tuition money on their own. The slave’s role in the master’s house is to work, not to learn.
Occasionally, when parents agree to give up their child, Benavil treks to the countryside to ensure that he is providing a quality product to his clients. “Sometimes I go out to make sure it’s a healthy child I’m giving them,” he says. Then he makes his delivery. Sometimes the customer isn’t satisfied. “They say, ‘Oh, that’s not the person I want,’” he sniffs. Benavil tells them: “You can’t say, ‘I don’t want this one,’ because you didn’t have any to begin with, so how do you know you don’t want this one?” Some refuse to pay. Some of his clients take their slaves with them to the north. “Some to the States, some to Canada. They continue to work for the person. And sometimes, once the person brings them over there, they’ll let them figure out how to live. They’ll give them their freedom. Sometimes.”
But not always. Restavèks live as slaves to this day in Haitian communities across the United States. Most don’t make headlines. One little girl in Miami was an exception. On September 28, 1999, police rescued a twelve-year-old from the suburban Miami home of Willy and Marie Pompee. The Pompees acquired the girl in their native Haiti, and took her to the United States, where they forced her to keep their $351,000 home spotless, eat garbage, and sleep on the floor. Like many female restavèks, she was also considered a “la-pou-sa-a” or a “there-for-that.” In other words, she was a sex toy. When police, acting on a tip, rescued her that day in September, she was suffering from acute abdominal pain and a venereal disease: since age nine, the couple’s twenty-year-old son, Willy Junior, had regularly raped her.
Like many human traffickers, Benavil describes his work in euphemistic, even humanitarian terms. He claims that what he does helps the children. “Because the child can’t eat” while they’re in the countryside; “because there are people of good faith that will help them.” He claims to tell clients, “Life is something spiritual, it’s not something in a store you can buy.” “I don’t sell children,” he says without prompting, “although it would seem like it.” He “places” them.
But, Benavil admits, “you have people that mistreat” the children he doesn’t sell. When he drops children off, he notes they often will be forced to sleep on the floor with any other domestic animals the client has.
It’s time tobuy a slave. Your negotiation might sound a bit like the following exchange.
“How quickly do you think it would be possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean and cook?” you ask. You don’t want to stay in Haiti too long. “I don’t have a very big place; I have a small apartment. But I’m wondering how much that would cost? And how quickly?”
“Three days,” Benavil says.
“And you could bring the child here? Or are there children here already?”
“I don’t have any here in Port-au-Prince right now,” says Benavil, his eyes widening at the thought of a foreign client. “I would go out to the countryside.”
“Would I have to pay for transportation?”
“Bon,” says Benavil. “Would you come out as well?”
“Yeah, perhaps. Yes, I would if it’s possible.”
“A hundred U.S.”
“And that’s just for transportation?” you ask, smelling a rip-off.
“Transportation would be about a hundred Haitian,” says Benavil, or around $13, “because you’d have to get out there. Plus food on the trip. Five hundred gourdes.” You’ll be traveling some distance, to La Vallée. A private car, Benavil explains, would be faster but pricier. You’ll have to pay for gas, and that will cost as much as $40. Plus hotel and food.
“Okay, five hundred Haitian,” you say. Now the big question: “And what would your fee be?”
You just asked the price of the child. This is the moment of truth, and Benavil’s eyes narrow as he determines how much he can milk from you.
“A hundred. American.”
“A hundred U.S.!” you shout. Emote here—a sense of outrage, but with a smile so as not to kill the deal.
“Eight hundred Haitian.”
“That seems like a lot,” you say. “How much would you charge a Haitian?”
“A Haitian? A Haitian?” Benavil asks, his voice rising with feigned indignation to match your own. “A hundred dollars. This is a major effort.”
“Could you bring down your fee to fifty U.S.?” you ask.
Benavil pauses. But only for effect—he knows he’s got you for way more than a Haitian would pay for a child. “Oui,” he finally says with a smile. The deal isn’t done.
“Let me talk it over. It’s a lot of money, but I understand that you’re the best,” you say.
He gives you his number, and, as he’s left his business cards at the office, writes down his name for you as well. Benavil leans in close and whispers: “This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a ‘partner.’ You understand what I mean? Or is it someone you just really want to work?”
Briefed as you are on the “la-pou-sa-a” phenomenon, you don’t blink at being asked if you want the child for sex as well as housework.
“I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?” you ask.
“Oui!” Benavil responds enthusiastically.
“I think probably a girl would be better.”
“Just one?” Benavil asks, hopefully.
“When do you need it by?” he asks.
“I can’t say that right now, but you say you could have one ready in three days?”
“Um-hmm.” He nods.
“I’m not actually sure whether a girl or boy would work better,” you, the doubting consumer, say. A slave is a serious purchase. Best to acquire the right one the first time. “I’ll decide that later. Do you want to ask me any other questions about what I want?”
“What age?” Benavil asks.
“Younger better,” you say. “Probably somewhere between nine and eleven.”
“What kind of salary would you offer?”
Unlike the sex question, this surprises you. But you figure it’s just Benavil doing his humanitarian shtick again. “I could give food and I could give a place to stay, and I might be able to pay for school. But in terms of salary, even though I’m American, I’m a poor writer. But perhaps school and food.”
“Perhaps when you leave the country, would you take the person with you?”
“I think I could probably do that. It depends on visa issues, but I think I could probably work it out. Any more questions?”
Benavil tells you that he can “arrange” the papers to make it look as if you’ve adopted the child. That will make it easier to take your purchase home. He offers you a thirteen-year-old girl.
“That’s a little bit old,” you say.
“I know of another girl who’s twelve. Then ones that are ten, eleven, and twelve,” he responds.
You say you’d like to see what’s on offer in the countryside. But then you tell him not to make any moves without further word from you.
Here, 600 miles from the United States, and five hours from the desk of the UN Secretary-General, you have successfully bargained a human being down to the price of the cab fare to JFK.
I didn’tmake up these descriptions and conversations, though they read like a perverted travel tale. They were recorded in October 2005 in Haiti, and like slavery itself, they can only be absorbed if you think of them at a distance. But in Haiti as elsewhere, a slave is no metaphor.
And conjured literary irony cannot compare to the cruel irony of Haiti’s history. The French colony of Saint-Domingue was once “the pearl of the Antilles,” the richest colony in the hemisphere, with a GDP greater than that of the United States. Today, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas. Haitian blacks, who then comprised over 90 percent of the colony’s population, forged the region’s second free republic by staging, in 1791, the modern world’s first, and only, successful slave revolt.
Now Haiti has more slaves than any nation outside of Asia, and more than toiled on the entire island of Hispaniola (including Haiti and the Dominican Republic) when the revolution began.
In 1685, the king of France laid the groundwork for a system of child slavery that mutated but continued for 330 years. One hundred and seventy years after black slaves first were taken to the island, Louis XIV, the absolutist “Sun King,” declared
Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery
A Crime So Monstrous
Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery
As Samantha Power and Philip Gourevitch did for genocide, Skinner has now done for modern-day slavery. With years of reporting in such places as Haiti, Sudan, India, Eastern Europe, The Netherlands, and, yes, even suburban America, he has produced a vivid testament and moving reportage on one of the great evils of our time.
There are more slaves in the world today than at any time in history. After spending four years visiting a dozen countries where slavery flourishes, Skinner tells the story, in gripping narrative style, of individuals who live in slavery, those who have escaped from bondage, those who own or traffic in slaves, and the mixed political motives of those who seek to combat the crime.
Skinner infiltrates trafficking networks and slave sales on five continents, exposing a modern flesh trade never before portrayed in such proximity. From mega-harems in Dubai to illicit brothels in Bucharest, from slave quarries in India to child markets in Haiti, he explores the underside of a world we scarcely recognize as our own and lays bare a parallel universe where human beings are bought, sold, used, and discarded. He travels from the White House to war zones and immerses us in the political and flesh-and-blood battles on the front lines of the unheralded new abolitionist movement.
At the heart of the story are the slaves themselves. Their stories are heartbreaking but, in the midst of tragedy, readers discover a quiet dignity that leads some slaves to resist and aspire to freedom. Despite being abandoned by the international community, despite suffering a crime so monstrous as to strip their awareness of their own humanity, somehow, some enslaved men regain their dignity, some enslaved women learn to trust men, and some enslaved children manage to be kids. Skinner bears witness for them, and for the millions who are held in the shadows.
In so doing, he has written one of the most morally courageous books of our time, one that will long linger in the conscience of all who encounter it, and one that -- just perhaps -- may move the world to constructive action.