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#667: Restaveks article (1990) (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
This appeared in the Miami Herald's Tropic supplement nine years ago. I
think it's still the most substantial article in the mainstream press on
the subject to date.
(Miami Herald, 30 Dec 1990)
THE LITTLEST SLAVES IN HAITI: IF A CHILD IS ONLY POOR AND HUNGRY, HE IS
ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES
By: DEBBIE SONTAG
Twelve-year-old Judith Marcena is running for her life in ripped, pink
plastic sandals. On the busy Route des Dalles, she jumps over charcoal
piles, elbows past avocado vendors, leaps over garbage and slides through
The devil is chasing her. He's red with a pointy tail and pointy
mustache. But his scowling face is very young, the face of the little boy
that used to be Judith's master, in her last house.
The devil-boy is taunting Judith, cursing her with the bluntest, most
humiliating word for what she is. "Restavek! You're worthless, no good.
You're a restavek! Restavek!"
The nights that Judith has that dream, she says, are the nights she
goes to sleep too exhausted to pray to God.
The following mornings, Judith invariably awakes with a fright and,
for a change, doesn't mind getting up at 5 a.m., the typical restavek
waking hour. That's an hour before anyone else rises in her one-room house,
which sits on a Port-au-Prince hilltop beneath Fort Mercredi, in a
shantytown called Under the Fort.
Those mornings, Judith springs off the dirt floor where she sleeps
below the beds of the family she serves. She slips into a red dress stained
with dirt and sweat and gets right to her first task. As the other kids
snore, Judith pushes aside the corrugated tin that covers the doorway, then
crouches to lift the bucket in the corner.
She walks outside into a morning darkness of barking dogs and crowing
roosters, working her way downhill to a mound of trash.
There she spills the bucket and pauses as dawn breaks beneath her,
over the harbor of Port-au-Prince and over all the other children just like
her, restavek children whose day begins with jete pipi: emptying chamber
pots, dumping their masters' urine.
The Haitian government believes that at least one in every 20 Haitian
children is, like Judith, an indentured servant, a restavek.
None of those kids, however, likes to be known by that label. The
literal translation is mild: "live-withs." But the social translation is
brutal. To be a restavek is to be an untouchable, the ultimate have-not in
a society of have-nots.
"Restavek is one of the worst slurs you could be called," says
Jacqueline Regis, 37, now a lawyer in Minnesota, and once, briefly, a
restavek in Les Cayes. "It puts you down socially so bad that it makes you
feel completely worthless."
In the classic restavek scenario, needy rural Haitian parents give
away children -- usually girls -- to urban families, with the hope that
they be not only fed but sent to school, offered a chance in life.
In the classic scenario, that hope is all too frequently dashed.
Instead of being delivered into a better future, the kids are being
condemned to a life on the margins of their society.
The restavek phenomenon is as deeply and complexly ingrained in
Haitian culture as it is ubiquitous -- a vestige, some say, of colonialism;
a symptom, some say, of a society so poor, so ill that the servitude of its
children is little more than a necessary fact of life.
"The issue isn't black and white," says Pierre Raynand, head of the
tiny Haitian Children's Rights Defense League. "Some young domestics do not
fare so badly; others are treated like beasts of burden. Some are even sent
to school; others are brutally beaten and sexually abused."
But after generations of acceptance, some Haitians are growing
increasingly uncomfortable with the restavek tradition -- especially as the
concept of human rights begins to take hold in the post-Duvalier years.
They've grown uncomfortable enough to at least search for new euphemisms,
avoiding the traditional slur, calling kids like Judith "domestics" or
"timoun qui rete ak moun," little people who live with big people.
Which, to some Haitians, is a cloaked way of saying "slave."
"It's slavery, pure and simple," says Jean Robert Chery, an outspoken
child psychologist in Port-au-Prince. "That's why it's one subject you
can't really touch in Haiti. It's the raw nerve of our society."
Turn a corner in Port-au-Prince and a pretty little girl in a torn
pink dress is squatting on an overturned can, scrubbing clothes as other
children toss a ball as if she weren't there. She says her name is Mona,
and that she's 12, although she looks little more than 7. Her last name?
Round a bend and there's another little girl scurrying up a hill with
a pail of trash. She's Giselle, dirty and raggedy in a ripped T-shirt and
flowered shorts. No, she doesn't live with her mama, she lives with big
people, she says, her eyes darting about. Restaveks aren't used to being
addressed, especially in gentle tones, especially by foreigners. Giselle
begins to sweat, and runs away.
To search out restavek children in Haiti is to search for shadows in a
shadowy society. The phenomenon is elusive, because it is both something
very open and something very closed. The restaveks are everywhere but
people rarely pay them any attention.
"During one of my first trips to Haiti, in the 1950s, I was shocked to
see a little restavek girl sleeping under a sitting room table, like a
dog," says Bernard Diederich, a veteran Caribbean correspondent and author
of Papa Doc, a classic book on Francois Duvalier. "But as I began to
understand the complexities of Haitian society, this became something that
I, like the Haitians, didn't really notice."
There are no social agencies that look after restaveks, no advocacy
groups that take up their plight exclusively. People who live in
Port-au-Prince say the restavek custom is really a provincial phenomenon;
people in the provinces say it's a problem of the capital. The Haitian
government's social welfare agency says 120,000 to 200,000 restaveks are in
the country -- but it's not really sure.
In the middle and upper classes, people are reluctant to talk: "It is
almost a taboo subject because they have all committed the act," Diederich
And even the few people who work with children are hesitant, afraid
that outsiders might judge their society too severely: "I don't want anyone
to use this information to come to the conclusion that Haitians are
savages," says children's rights defender Pierre Raynand.
In search of restavek children, Haitian photographer Daniel Morel led
me through the streets of the capital to the busy, rutted Route des Dalles.
At a well, a clump of little children waited for water with black oil cans
and white buckets. How to tell which were poor kids helping with the family
chores, which restaveks?
"It's easy to pick out the restaveks," Morel said. "It's not just that
they're smaller and dirtier. It's that they always have such a frightened
look, like little animals."
I stopped a sweet little girl named Natasha, who said she was 3 but
looked 8. (Many restaveks don't know their age.)
"Who do you live with?" I asked.
"With my auntie," she whispered.
"And your mother, where is she?" I asked gently.
"Deyo," she whispered, literally, "outside," somewhere in the
In minutes, Natasha and Daniel and I were surrounded by children. We
asked questions. They answered: "Give us money." Soon, such an unruly crowd
had gathered that Daniel and I walked away, past hand-painted carts with
bottles of sweet-colored liquids, past huge blocks of ice lying on large
"The kids say, 'auntie,' " Daniel said, "but they're talking about
Before long, a girl tugged at my skirt. "I'm one," she said. "I'm a
little person who lives with big people." Then she began to cry softly.
Judith Marcena, baby-blue barrettes in her hair, had followed behind
us down 15 city blocks. She wanted to tell her story. She also hoped she
might get something in return, like $1 for plastic sandals to replace the
torn ones that barely stayed on her feet.
Sitting on a stoop, with a light rain falling, Judith told us she used
to live with her mother in Petit Gove, a southern town on the Gulf of
Gonave. When she was 10, her father announced he was sending her to school
in the city. He packed a large colored scarf with her few belongings and
took her on a series of tap-taps, or buses, to Port-au-Prince. They arrived
late one night at a concrete house that had not only electricity, but a
small television set. It was the home of one of her father's former
Judith said her father left early the next morning. "He doesn't want
you. He gave you to me, and you'll do as I say," her "stepmother" told
Judith. When Judith asked when she was starting school, her stepmother
laughed. "She told me I was too stupid to learn to read, and I should give
thanks that I didn't have to live in the streets," Judith said.
The stepmother made Judith work day and night. She had to dump the
chamber pot and the trash, take the other kids to and from school, fetch
the water from the well, prepare the kids' meals, wash the dishes and clean
the house. She would wake up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 11 p.m.
Her stepmother beat her for the slightest transgression, Judith said.
When a sympathetic neighbor gave her 50 centimes, or 12 cents, to buy some
food, the stepmother accused her of stealing and threw a rock at her head.
The little kids in the house would hold their noses and call Judith a
smelly restavek; Judith was allowed to bathe only on Saturdays, although
she washed the other kids daily.
After a year, desperately unhappy, Judith worked up the courage to ask
the sympathetic neighbor to find her mother's stepsister, the only other
person she knew in Port-au-Prince. The stepaunt, who is dirt poor, came and
took Judith away, with the understanding that Judith would now be her
restavek. At her stepaunt's, Judith is still the one who sleeps on the
floor and does the bulk of the housework.
But she eats the same meager food as the others in the house, and the
stepaunt appears to be a gentle, helpless woman -- although not too
helpless to beat Judith when she is "lazy."
Judith wishes only that she could go back home to her mother, she said
that first day. She stood up to start the long walk uphill to Under the
"That would make me happy," she said, "to go home to my mom. Her name
is Islene. Could you take me there, to Petit Gove?"
In the early 1950s, when child psychiatrist Jeanne Phillipe was a
baccalaureate candidate, she and her classmates would study in a broad
public square, watching the restavek children go back and forth with
buckets of water on their heads.
"We were young and fresh-thinking, and it just really struck us that
we were sitting there studying, preparing for a future, and these children
had nothing ahead of them," Phillipe says.
Fifteen years later, in 1968, Phillipe and a sociologist named Daniela
Devesin published one of the first studies ever done on restaveks. One out
of every six families in Petionville, an affluent suburb of the capital,
then had "a young domestic," the researchers found. The domestics did the
vilest chores of the home and were treated like garbage, Phillipe and
No one paid much attention to their findings.
In 1975, the late humorist and raconteur Maurice Sixto recorded the
story of Ti (Little) Saint Anize, which got quite a different reaction.
Over the years, it has become a classic, constantly requested on Haitian
Sixto told of a fictional restavek girl who lives in the house of a
professor greatly concerned with human rights -- but oblivious to the
injustice beneath his nose.
Called "liar, thief" by the professor's shrewish wife, Little Saint
Anize is charged with fussing after "Mademoiselle," the professor's
"Saint Anize," says the shrew, "come take Mademoiselle's book bag. Do
I have to tell you every day? You'll make her late for school. Oh, my. This
book bag is filthy. Why don't you clean it with your tongue, if you can't
find a rag?"
It wasn't the first time a Haitian artist had mentioned the abusive
treatment of restaveks. But Sixto's satire hit home, particularly among the
many educated Haitians who had lived, like Sixto, in exile abroad.
"Those of us who have been away have realized we can do away with the
custom and live normally," says the Rev. Fritz Fontus, pastor of the
8,000-member First Baptist Church of Port-au-Prince. "When my wife and I
came back from the States, we made a decision not to have a child domestic.
We did not want to appear to endorse something we disapproved of -- even if
we knew that we would do it differently." Among the affluent, a taint began
to attach itself to the long-honored restavek tradition. It was a quiet
revolution, and it would lead to a change.
Now, the more affluent hire maids. For the most part, it is the poor
and lower-middle class -- the merchants, the soldiers, even the domestics
-- who keep restaveks in their homes.
Restaveks are servants even the most meager budget can accommodate.
It is 6:30 a.m. Judith is holding hands with her neighbor and best
friend, Marjorie Martiel, as they descend a steep hill toward a nearby
well. Marjorie lives with her mother, but she feels so sorry for Judith she
often accompanies her on chores.
Judith is lucky to have a friend. Most restaveks don't. But in the
neighborhood Under the Fort, the social hierarchy is necessarily less
rigid. The concrete homes lean up against each other like rooms in a house;
the windows are cardboard, the doors detached pieces of tin. Few children
are lucky enough to go down the hill to school. Marjorie doesn't; the
difference she sees between her lot and Judith's is that she lives with her
mother, sleeps in a bed and has only one chore: to braid her mother's hair.
Otherwise, they're both the same age -- 12 -- and love to jump rope.
This morning, Judith swings a large white plastic bucket, which she
will fill with water and carry on her head back up the rocky hill, past the
goats and a tree decorated with colorful panties drying in the breeze. This
is her first bucket of the day. She has six to go. After the seventh
bucket, she will bathe her stepcousin, 6-year-old Ricardo, and walk him to
school, washing his feet on arrival.
By the mid-1980s, even the government of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc"
Duvalier couldn't disregard a tradition that, to the developed world, was
so clearly a thing of the past, of Oliver Twist and Cinderella.
In 1984, an unlikely two-day event took place at Hotel Castel Haiti in
Port-au-Prince: "The Colloquium on Childhood in Domesticity," the first
conference ever on the subject of restaveks -- co-sponsored by UNICEF and
"Baby Doc," who also, at the time, was sponsoring the murderous Tonton
Macoutes paramilitary brigade.
On opening day, the government host welcomed the crowd with a sample
of the rhetoric that would follow: "These beings in question, have they not
waited too long -- alas! -- for us to fly to their aid?"
Although the elite was rarely pressed to examine its conscience, and
human rights were hardly a "Baby Doc" regime priority, some fairly
incisive, if pompously phrased, social criticism was proffered.
Eddy Clesca, identified at the conference as a "psychopedagogue": "The
question is this: How could we, a people who led such a tenacious battle to
free ourselves from slavery in the 18th Century, tolerate, in this day and
age, an injustice as glaring as the "domestication" of children?"
Conference participants said:
* Two-thirds of all restaveks live in Port-au-Prince; their ages range
from 4 to 17; and 75 percent are girls -- who are of less economic value to
their families. Most restaveks are malnourished; as a result, they are
generally smaller than other children their age. (A study of 15-year-old
restaveks showed they were 1.5 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than a
control group of other 15-year-olds.)
* Restaveks get up before anyone else in the family and go to bed
last, working 12-hour days, at the minimum. They usually sleep on the floor
or outside and eat leftovers after the family dines.
* Seventy-five to 90 percent of restaveks are illiterate, compared to
62.5 percent of the total population.
* Most restaveks suffer from depression, fear and constant anxiety.
"They can barely look you in the eye. It's like they live in a little
bubble, in a kind of internal prison," Port-au-Prince child psychologist
Jean Robert Chery said in a recent interview.
* Three-quarters of a sample restavek population is beaten routinely.
Nearly all are verbally abused. And restavek girls are often used for the
sexual initiation of the boys in the house.
"The availability of the child domestic of the feminine sex makes her
a natural outlet for the libido and sexual fantasies of the Haitian male,"
Eddy Clesca said at the conference. "The latter experiences a certain
pleasure in abusing the domestic because of her strong odor, her muffled
screams, her resistance, and finally, her submission. It's a rape without
Clesca continued: "The Haitian poet living in Montreal, Jean Richard
Laforest, in a nice text on domestic rape, admits that, as an adult, he
cannot bring a sexual act to completion without thinking of the little maid
who served as his sexual initiator."
Following the conference, the Haitian social welfare agency issued the
"Law For Little People Who Live With Big People." The law outlawed
housework for children under 12, required a salary to be paid those over 15
and ordered employers to send restaveks to school and to doctors. It also
said every restavek should be registered, and a yearly permit issued, to be
renewed on the basis of a "physical, moral and intellectual examination."
It was, for the most part, a nice law, but like many other nice
Haitian laws, it was never enforced. No restavek was registered, no home
checked for compliance, no fine of 1,000 to 3,000 gourdes ($200 to $600)
levied for "moral tortures or corporal chastisement," as specified.
But this is not unusual in Haiti. There are no institutions to enforce
the laws; the justice system is rotten and ineffectual. When psychologist
Chery comes across a child who has been raped, there is nothing he can do
but "dialogue with the rapist," he says. In Haiti, even murder goes
Haiti was once a land of lush forest, once "the pearl of the
Antilles," once the proud and only black republic in the world.
Now it is virtually stripped bare, severely deforested and eroded, the
poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. And it has suffered a turbulent
political history, continuing beyond the 29-year Duvalier family
dictatorship that ended in 1986.
The restavek phenomenon can be seen only as a function of this
history, of the extreme rural poverty and political repression.
It all started with the French, who were outnumbered by their black
slaves 10 to 1. The French enforced their rule with such brutality that the
slave revolt against them was reciprocally vicious and protracted. By the
time the slaves founded the Republic of Haiti in 1804, the plantations were
in ruins. Haiti's new rulers tried to revive them, taking a brief turn as
slave masters themselves, then distributing land on a massive scale.
The country was divided into minuscule land parcels, the population
into small landholders. Economic and political power was concentrated in
the hands of a tiny urban elite. Everyone else eked out a living as a
This year, the per capita yearly income for Haitians is $400.
For the sake of simple survival, rural parents have long given away
their children. In some ways, this is just an extension of Haiti's
traditional extended family structure, in which everyone looks after
everyone else, and the more affluent help the disadvantaged. Blood ties are
"I remember after the '64 hurricane, when a woman came down to our
neighborhood with a boy in her arms and went from house to house, begging
for a family that would take him," says Minnesota lawyer Jacqueline Regis,
who grew up outside Aux Cayes. "My mother couldn't say no, and we were very
Antoine became almost like a member of the family, Regis says. "He
helped around the house and helped with the farm work. We all did chores.
You work hard in a rural setting. He was not really treated differently --
except, well, yes, the three of us kids went to school in town, and he went
to a half-day school in the neighborhood."
Antoine's mother was desperate, but rural parents often wanted more
than food for a hungry child. They wanted their children to escape their
own fate, to take a step closer to the modern world. Haitians who live in
the countryside are commonly referred to as moun deyo, outsiders in every
sense of the word. Derogatorily, they are neg gwo zotey -- literally,
Haitians with fat toes, toes swollen from never wearing shoes.
Andre Val, 20, says he was eager to pack up and leave Jacmel for
Port-au-Prince when his parents sent him away to be a restavek. "All my
cousins from the capital were better dressed. For starters, they all had
shoes. Going to Port-au-Prince, for me, was like going to America."
But the practice of restavek has traditionally betrayed its promise.
Jacqueline Regis: "Haitian people have a basic disrespect for
themselves that's part of the oppression over the years. So Haitian people
always feel they have to exert themselves over others to affirm who they
are. Restavek is the manifestation of that concept."
Journalist Michelle Montas, Radio Haiti Inter: "Restavek kids are
mistreated because kids are mistreated, because most parents have a
repressive mind-set shaped by the political environment they were raised
in. It's the Macoute mentality."
Within a year of moving to the big city, Andre Val, then 12, was
miserable. After his mistress beat him with a pipe and spit in his face, he
ran away to the streets. He would flatten himself against alley walls at
nights, hiding from the police sent to retrieve him.
"When I think about it now," says Val, who now counsels street kids at
Jean Robert Chery's Popular Education Center on Burial Street in
Port-au-Prince, "I want to kill that family."
Judith is leading us up the slippery rock toward the hedge of tin and
concrete shacks, some half-built, that is Under the Fort. It's puzzling
that she's willing to let us meet her mistress. Most restaveks we met are
terrified that they'll be punished for talking to us, for telling us
Her stepaunt peeks out from behind the blue gauze that hangs over the
doorway of their concrete hut. She does not look evil. She looks wizened,
like a weary old woman. She is 42.
The woman brings out a plastic chair for her guests and grinds it into
the rocky dirt.
Her name is Frederick François. She used to work as a maid. Now
she can't find a job. With money from her oldest son, a mechanic, she
barely feeds her seven kids.
François says she needs Judith. She needs help. Judith is just like
a daughter to her, she says. She sleeps on the floor only because there is
no money for a bed. She must work in exchange for room and board. She is
never beaten. Would François be willing to send Judith to school? "If I
get the money, it's my girls who go first."
Later a neighbor, Marjorie's mother, tells me: "When Judith is hungry,
she doesn't want to work, and her auntie beats her."
François is uncomfortable; she doesn't really want to talk. When
we thank her and turn to go, Francois points to her stomach and holds out
her hand, cupping her palm.
The reason François agreed to speak to us about something
many mistresses are ashamed of is that she, like her restavek, hopes
to get something in return.
As the standard of life in the cities has declined, many restaveks are
just leaving rural poverty for urban poverty. Often, they're not any better
off materially -- and they're worse off emotionally, growing up without
love, growing up as a member of the subspecies that is made up of
Rosita Janeu, for example, a 12-year-old who now works as a restavek
in Port-au-Prince, used to go to school when she lived with her mother
outside Jeremie, in the south. Now she doesn't. In the countryside, she
attended church every Sunday. Now, in the city, she can't.
"Here they look at you bad if you don't have shoes, and I'm ashamed,"
Do you want to go back home to your family? Rosita is asked.
She says: "If they wanted me, they would come to get me."
As the Duvalier family dictatorship started to crumble, Haiti began to
open up, slowly, painfully and chaotically.
And just as journalists talked more freely on the radio, political
parties sprouted like weeds, and Haitians learned to assert themselves with
less fear, so, too, did children grow bolder.
More and more restaveks, particularly boys, understood that they
didn't have to take the abuse. They could run away.
Every day, every single day, at least one restavek runaway shows up at
Radio Haiti Inter, says journalist Michelle Montas.
"They turn up not just here but at the other radio stations and the
television station," Montas says. "There's nowhere else to go. Our society
has no institutions."
When they arrive, the kids generally say they're lost. After a few
days, when no one has shown up to claim them, they admit they're restaveks.
In extreme cases, a doctor is needed.
Recently, Montas says, one little girl ran away after failing to make
her mistress' bed neatly enough. The mistress had responded by plunging the
girl's hands into boiling corn mush, leaving her with second-degree burns.
Sometimes, Montas or another radio personality will try to talk some
sense into the master or mistress, "explaining that the child does not have
to bleed to learn a lesson." If children know how to find their real
parents, the radio station helps them get in touch.
But often the parents can't take them back. One little restavek girl
was found by a social worker for CHADEL, a human rights organization, with
burns from an iron on her lips and hands. She had been late returning to
her mistress' house with the water. CHADEL tracked down the girl's parents.
The parents were sad, but they had 11 kids at home. They didn't want her
For most restaveks, running away is hardly a solution. There really
isn't anywhere to run to.
Some girls end up at The Welcome Center, as the country's one
state-run orphanage is known. The Welcome Center's budget allows for $10 to
be spent on each kid monthly.
Seventy-five of the 100 girls at The Welcome Center are former
restaveks, director Paula Thybullle says.
"You can't imagine what problems I have with these girls. They wake up
in the morning crying, but they won't explain what's wrong. They think they
have to accept whatever happens to them. They're willing to suffer. They
think that's their lot."
Boy restaveks usually end up on the streets, swelling the small ranks
of a street-kid population that barely existed five years ago. Of the 5,000
to 6,000 street kids in Port-au-Prince, sleeping under store awnings,
getting high on gasoline fumes and washing windshields at intersections,
many are runaway restavek boys.
The runaway restaveks are prime targets for exploitation. Journalists
and human rights advocates have recently begun investigating a heavily
guarded bordello staffed by little kids on the outskirts of town.
Its name is Au Vietnam, In Vietnam.
Traditions die hard. Some say the practice of restavek is not limited
to the island, that some Haitians take it with them when they emigrate.
But Claude Charles, a Haitian anthropologist living in Miami, says
that's not true.
"Is there domesticity as it exists in Haiti? No, there is not such a
thing. In Haiti, it is some form of indigenous slavery. Here, they have no
reason to do that. Here in America you have to send a child to school. Here
there are protective services.
"You will find, suppose, a young couple where the wife and husband
need to work and maybe they send for a niece, a little cousin in Haiti, and
give an opportunity for her to come here. Sure, in exchange for education
and food, the little cousin will give some form of assistance. But it's not
the same pattern. There is an opportunity for abuse, but it is not
documented, that I know of."
But there is at least one documented case.
When Lyonel Dor was 12, his father died and his father's half-sister
offered to care for the boy. Anita Brutus, who lived in Brooklyn, where she
owned a couple of boarding houses, promised to send the boy to school in
exchange for his help around the house. It was the traditional restavek
contract and Dor's mother readily agreed.
In 1972, Brutus smuggled Dor into the United States. She did send him
to school, but she timed his daily departure and arrival. Dor was never
allowed out of the house for any other reason. He did all the cooking,
cleaning and laundry. He also worked as a handyman at Brutus' boarding
houses. Brutus' "character was like a slave boss," her ex-husband, Pierre
Polynice, would later say in a deposition.
Brutus beat Dor regularly, for little or no reason -- with a stick,
the flat edge of a machete or whatever happened to be handy. Once she beat
him severely because he had not timed a meal so that the meat and rice were
ready at the same time. Occasionally, Brutus would strip Dor naked and lash
him with a cowhide whip, even on his genitals. Four years after Dorarrived,
a second restavek arrived, the son of a former Brutus family servant.
Brutus stripped and beat the boys together. The second boy, who was more
streetwise, wasn't willing to put up with it. He pushed Dor to kill Brutus.
As Brutus rested on her bed after breakfast one morning, Dor struck her
several times with a pipe, and the other boy stabbed her to death. The
second boy, who was younger, was remanded to Family Court. Dor was indicted
for murder, and prosecuted as an adult.
Neighbors and Pierre Polynice testified that Dor was verbally,
physically and sexually abused by his stepaunt. The prosecutor allowed him
to plead guilty to manslaughter, and Dor was sent to a New York state
prison. After 6 1/2 years as a model prisoner, Dor was released from prison
into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He spent
another six years in an INS detention center on Varick Street in Manhattan,
during which time he married an American nurse from Massachusetts; he also
earned a dubious record as the INS' longest-held detainee.
Finally, early this fall, immigration officials deported Dor to Haiti
on the condition that he could return to the States late this year on his
In Haiti, Dor met the mother who had sent him away.
"She said she thought going to Brooklyn would be an opportunity for
me," he said in English.
Dor had never heard the word restavek, he said. When told that the
abuse he suffered was a tradition in his native land, Dor shook his head.
"I think it's a shame. I just wish the people would be more educated
and let children be children. I wish there were ways the children could
escape and go seek help. Is there something I could do?"
Jacqueline Regis had long ago stopped asking herself that question. A
successful lawyer in the Minnesota attorney general's office, she felt no
one had an interest in the restavek issue and no one ever would.
Regis grew up in a straw house on a tiny farm where her mother
cultivated rice and sugar cane. She and her mother were the outcasts of
their more established family in "the main house" in downtown Les Cayes.
There were always restavek children at the main house, and, at a
particularly dire time, Regis was one of them. Her aunt, she says, was
verbally abusive, denigrating the children, calling them lazy no matter how
hard they worked, making it clear that they had no rights, and had better
shut up and do as they were told.
"But when I saw the real horror stories is when I moved to
Port-au-Prince," Regis says. Four restaveks, three girls and one boy, lived
at the boarding house where she stayed. Regis was particularly taken with
5-year-old Christiane, a strikingly beautiful girl who had to scrub her
mistress' swollen feet. Christiane, who slept on the floor in the dining
room and cooked her own dinner of hot, dry cornmeal, was beaten with a
broomstick by her mistress and slapped by the mistress' children.
Nearly 20 years later, when Regis heard that a group of Minnesota
lawyers was looking into the issue of restaveks in Haiti, she couldn't
believe it. In the course of preparing a report on children's rights in
Haiti, the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee had
stumbled across the phenomenon.
With Regis' participation, the lawyers, who had gone to Haiti to
investigate, issued a report in August, which was then broadcast on the
radio in Port-au-Prince and circulated among Haitian government and
The Minnesota lawyers called for the abolition of restavek. The
government should undertake an education campaign, denouncing the practice
of restavek, the lawyers said. It should remove kids from employing
families and return them to their own homes, or at least move them to
better environments. There should be more state-run orphanages and programs
to address rural poverty and underdevelopment.
Regis felt her Midwestern American lawyer friends had gone a bit too
far; they were naive to think an entrenched custom could be abolished, just
"I thought it showed a total misunderstanding of Haitian culture,"
Regis says. "I don't think it should be abolished. It's a great thing at
its best, and people should be educated to practice it at its best."
Child psychologist Chery shudders at such talk, which is not uncommon.
He believes abolition is imperative. But, he says, "the problem here is
that domesticity is like prostitution. We don't expect lawmakers who avail
themselves of bordellos to crack down on whores. And we don't expect
lawmakers who have domestics in their homes to change their life style
"This is too much a part of our social fabric. It will have to be
pulled apart one thread at a time."
After the Minnesota report came out, Haitian Social Affairs Minister
Brunel Delonnay told the National Catholic Reporter he wanted at the very
least to eliminate the Law For Little People Who Live With Big People;
under that law, "I should sign a paper for each child," in effect
legalizing the practice. "I can't accept legalizing restaveks," he said.
His concrete plan: another conference.
When they grow up, some restaveks continue working, for a salary, for
the same family. Others join the swelling population of the urban
unemployed. Some girls end up on the Champs de Mars, selling their bodies;
some boys in the National Penitentiary.
"Zombies, according to voodoo legend, have no more will. They can't
communicate. They can only obey," says Fritz Fontus, the Port-au-Prince
Baptist minister. "Our young domestics, once grown, are just like zombies,
mute, passive, prepared for nothing but to join the great mass of our
One young restavek boy, Durand Marseiles, who looks about 7, but
doesn't know his age, is still young enough to believe change is possible.
When he grows up, he wants to be: "someone who sleeps on a bed."
Judith sweeps the dirt out of her stepaunt's house and sits at the
edge of a bed covered with a leopard-print sheet.
She would like to be a dressmaker when she grows up, she says. Or a
jump-rope champion. She would really love to twirl and dance over a jump
rope in the middle of a big circle of kids, with everyone clapping and
cheering and no one calling her any bad names.
Also, it would be nice if she could learn to read. Her mother promised
she would go to school someday. Couldn't we please take her to Petit Gove
to see her mother?
Judith's stepaunt interrupts, wearily. She is tired of Judith's
delusion, her fantasy of escape.
"You cannot see your mother. You cannot."
Judith looks down at her feet.
"Her mother," says the stepaunt, "is dead."