PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Madeleine Vilma describes the beating that drove her to the streets as if she deserved it.
"I made them mad at me," the skinny 15-year-old recalls of the two women who had paid a pittance for her six years ago and then put her to work as a maid. "I broke the heel off my shoe, so they beat me with their sandals."
Their anger not fully vented, the women she called Auntie and Maman then singed her chest and arms with jolts from a frayed electrical cord, Madeleine recounts, nervously rocking and shifting her legs, stork-like, at the memory.
"They wanted to mark me so that I would remember."
Dispatched to the slums of the Haitian capital when she was 9 by parents unable to feed her, Madeleine had been delivered by a trader into a life of unpaid domestic servitude in exchange for food and shelter. Like an estimated 300,000 other children in this poorest of Western countries, she had no alternative except homelessness and hunger.
Foreign relief workers and Roman Catholic charities lately have been encouraging Haiti's child slaves to come out of the shadows to seek help -- and to expose a century-old practice that has subjected them to shocking abuse. Their growing numbers have prompted questions about whether the world's only successful national slave rebellion 200 years ago was really a victory.
As Haiti approaches the Jan. 1 bicentennial of its independence from French colonial rule, the plight of child slaves is threatening to overshadow official celebrations. It is also a measure of this ravaged country's progress in the two centuries since the slave rebellion.
"How can we be celebrating the bicentennial when this is still going on?" says Father Pierre St. Vistal, sweeping his hand to take in the barefoot, scarred and ragged children huddled around the doorway of his overwhelmed mission. "How can we as Haitians celebrate anything when our kids are on the streets, dying of hunger? This isn't a time for celebration but for being ashamed."
St. Vistal's mission offers hot meals and a crude, wood-planked sleeping loft under its tin roof for 45 of the most mistreated girls from the surrounding shantytown of Cite de Dieu, or City of God. Six hundred others, still toiling in nearby hovels, come in for food and lessons when their patrons allow it. The Catholic priest says he is sometimes confronted with machetes when he urges the keepers to let the children take advantage of schooling paid for by foreign charities.
Its name notwithstanding, there is no hint of divinity in Cite de Dieu, through which flows a filthy river carrying the city's wastes and rainwater out to sea. Narrow mud paths strewn with rocks and refuse left behind by the rainy season's inundations make passage perilous on foot and impossible by car. Rivulets of wastewater and sewage flow from beneath the single-room shacks of tin and plywood. Salvaged tires, peddlers' baskets, wood stoves and broken appliances litter the unmarked streets and alleys.
The children, called restaveks -- from the French rester avec, to stay with -- are not servants of the wealthy but of those just slightly less poor than the parents who sent them here.
As Haiti slips further into extreme poverty each year, the wave of children -- some as young as 4 -- flocking to the cities has become a deluge, forcing most to settle for whatever offer of shelter is on hand. Children who are not brokered go door to door looking for a place to stay.
"Most of these patrons want someone they can have do anything they need done without the conditions that come with employing an adult domestic," St. Vistal says.
"With kids, there are no limits. They have no rights and can be made to do anything."
A June report by the U.S. State Department about human trafficking accused Haiti's government of tolerating the abuse of child servants. Education Minister Marie Carmel Paul-Austin responded with assurances that legislative action had been taken to outlaw domestic servitude for those younger than 12 and that education reforms were underway to help more children get schooling. Neither Paul-Austin nor another official responsible for child welfare was available to discuss the issue, said the ministry's spokesman, Miloody Vincent.
Parliament adopted a measure early this year restricting the use of restaveks, but even the Social Affairs Office charged with registering unpaid domestic workers acknowledges that there hasn't been a single instance of enforcement.
The plight of the children is heart-rending to those fighting for them.
"When kids come from the provinces to the city, the families treat them like slaves, like lower life forms," says Patrick Bernard, who has worked at the Foyer Maurice Sixto refuge in the sprawling Carrefour slum for seven years. "That reaffirms their sense of inferiority, that they are treated like property and not people."