Too Tired to Cry
When I arrived in Haiti in 1995 to help establish a children's radio station, one of the first people I met was a street child, Papouche. He was up in my arms in moments, chatting away in a language I did not yet understand. Later, I learned he was describing his life during the 1991-94 coup. Papouche had managed to escape the rampant attacks on homeless kids that were common then – and which became rare after a 1994 U.S. invasion restored Jean Bertrand Aristide to power.
But since Aristide's ouster 10 months ago, attacks and killings of street children are back – in record numbers, according to local human rights workers.
In the early 1990s, Papouche, like many of the estimated 200,000 other street children in and around Port-au-Prince, had slept in the national cemetery among looted graves and the freshly dumped bodies of tortured pro-democracy activists. He competed with other boys for car-washing work on busy downtown streets.
Papouche was beaten by storeowners or their private henchmen and almost killed by members of the military, who thought he watched too closely as they dumped the bodies of their victims in a ravine next to the cemetery.
When an outreach team from Lafanmi Selavi – a center for street children founded by President Aristide when he was a parish priest – came to Chans Mas, Papouche was quick to jump in the back of their truck. I met him shortly after he came to the center. Over the next few years he excelled in school, studied photography and painted murals.
Although he wasn't yet 10 years old, Papouche became an advocate for children's rights, occasionally speaking alongside President Aristide and co-hosting a radio show on Radyo Timoun (Children's Radio).
Aristide was the first Haitian leader to initiate the prosecution of adults who mistreat children. He created laws protecting children who worked in sweatshops. From the national palace, often in collaboration with youth like Papouche, Aristide said that children, even street kids, were worthy of respect.
This movement transformed Haitians' attitudes toward children in general, and toward child domestic servants (called restaveks) and street kids in particular. It became unpopular to disrespect or mistreat youth. Random killings and beatings of street kids by storeowners, their lackeys and police dropped dramatically.
Today Papouche is 19 years old, set to graduate from high school and looking toward university. But he still knows many street children.
"These new ones are only 7 or 8 years old," Papouche told me recently. "They grew up under Aristide and don't know what it was like for us." But, Papouche says, "they will now."
According to child welfare workers, the rate of targeted beatings and killings of street children in Haiti has risen some 500 percent since the Feb. 29 ouster of Aristide.
A report released by Amnesty International in November cites the case of a 13-year-old in Martissant, who was kidnapped by police and handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten because they believed he knew the hiding places of armed groups said to be Aristide supporters.
Michael Brewer, a registered nurse from Texas, knows firsthand how street children are being newly targeted. He directs both Haiti Street Kids Inc, which provides medical care, food and support to homeless kids, and Port-au-Prince's Family Circle Boys Home, which provides full-time care for two dozen formerly homeless children.
"Nothing is ever reported, investigated or even mentioned if it is a street kid that has been murdered ... When the body becomes too unpleasant for the residents or vendors in the area, it is usually dumped or set on fire with kerosene. The names of those who are killed are often never known," says Brewer, who regularly checks the morgue and other known dumping sites for bodies.
"We almost always find bodies of street kids between the ages of about 8 and 16, especially now," Brewer says.
Brewer describes carloads of men who are members of the disbanded and now illegally reformed military, who patrol Port-au-Prince and kill street children "for sport."
"These men prowl the streets ... with high-powered military assault rifles, shotguns and 9mm pistols, wearing all-black uniforms with black ski masks over their heads," Brewer says. "They justify the murders of these boys by saying that they are cleaning the streets."
Brewer says he has personally corroborated many accounts of street children who witnessed murders. He describes one incident on Nov. 11 in Plais Bois, a park where many homeless boys sleep, in which a carload of men attacked three children ages seven, 12 and 15.
"The boys were first beaten severely. Black bags were then put over their heads and tied around their necks, and then they were shot and killed." Witnesses say that the bodies were taken away in a car trunk.
Children's advocates agree that the murders are committed by police, members of the death squads and the former military, as well as by the hired guns of the wealthy elites.
"I only saw three murdered (homeless) children between 1995 and the beginning of 2004," says one missionary who works with homeless children and asked that her name not be used. "Since Feb. 29, I have seen or heard of over 150 murders of street children and have personally witnessed the attacks on more than a dozen occasions."
From his home in the Plais Bois Park, 10-year-old TiLulou points at bloodstains on the concrete ground. "That's where my cousin was killed," he says. "The men in masks killed him. They have no heart for the street children and they want us to die."
I ask TiLulou if he is afraid to sleep at the park where so many of his friends have been killed. "No, I am tired, too tired to be afraid. I am too tired to cry. I just want a place to sleep and food in my stomach," he says.