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The World | COLUMN ONE

A Nation Loses Its Childhood

In Haiti, 200 years after a successful slave rebellion, thousands of rural children work for the urban poor for no wages and little else.

November 21, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

Most of the children who are sent to the capital to seek their fortunes disappear into rat-infested slums like Carrefour, La Saline and Cite Soleil -- shantytowns that house most of this city's 2.5 million people.

In Carrefour, berms of mud-encrusted trash line the rutted alleyways climbing up from Dessalines Boulevard, a one-lane link named for the slave revolt's victorious general. It is choked with battered cars and the rickety pickups called tap-taps that serve as buses. Jobless men and boys shovel sludge that flows down the denuded hillsides, clearing space for women to hawk their meager wares of bouillon cubes, batteries, plantain chips and root vegetables.

Families often have no idea where their servants come from, having bought them through intermediaries, Jeanty says.

"Often a kid gets out of a big family that can't take care of it, but I believe in my heart that it's better for them to stay with their suffering parents and brothers and sisters than be sent to strangers who treat them like animals," says Clarmei de Rameau, a cook at the Sixto shelter,who has worked there for a dozen years and rescued four restaveks by taking them into her home. "A mother's love can't be replaced."

Although most involved in helping the restaveks condemn official indifference, they also acknowledge that the practice does help feed children and brings them in out of the rain.

"It wouldn't be so common if there wasn't a need for their labor and their need to be fed and clothed," says Bernard of the Sixto shelter. "If child servitude was suddenly eradicated, there wouldn't be any place at all for these kids to go."

Those trying to help Haiti's enslaved children scoff at the government's claims that it is addressing the problem. "There has been a law against child labor for years, but it has never been enforced," says Jean Lherisson, head of Haiti Solidarity International. The human rights group warned last year that the problem was reaching epidemic proportions.

Lherisson argues that today's servants are even worse off than the children of slaves in the colonial era because then there were legal -- and honored -- prohibitions against using anyone younger than 10 for labor. Children as young as 4 now are sent here to work as servants, like Fredlin Alfred, a child thought to be that age found six months ago outside St. Vistal's mission.

Since slavery was overthrown by a 12-year revolt culminating in the proclamation of the first independent black republic on Jan. 1, 1804, "Haitian children have never been seen as subjects in the eyes of the state," Lherisson says of the country's 200-year succession of corrupt and abusive governments.

Lherisson says the rural poor continue to send their children into servitude because they cling to the illusion that they will have better chances in the city.

"Parents have no choice but to let their children dream. Here in Port-au-Prince, there's light and television and at least a hope of getting someone to pay for a child's education," he says. "You can't blame them for wanting to believe they are doing their kids a favor."


Williams was recently on assignment in Port-au-Prince.

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