Diaspora

In Haiti, need is great but so is the danger – The Ledger

A little more than 10 years ago, The Ledger assigned me and a photographer to join a local man, Michael Wnek, on a small relief mission to Haiti. Wnek had been going there for years, and when the devastating 2011 earthquake hit Port au Prince, he gathered what supplies he could fit onto a small private plane and took off with a few friends, and the photographer and me along for the ride.
All the airports in Haiti were either damaged or jammed, so we flew into the Dominican Republic, loaded the supplies onto SUVs and made for a border crossing. Late in the afternoon, along a deserted stretch of road, one of the SUVs blew a tire. The jack was missing. As some of the men worked to raise the vehicle enough to change the tire, the Haitian man who was acting as our fixer grew more and more nervous, watching the road. I asked why he was so edgy.
“Bandits,” he said.
I was suddenly struck with the reality that we were not dealing with an inconvenience as if we were stranded on an American highway. We were in a place – the Dominican Republic and Haiti not only share an island but also dire poverty – where to travel openly with goods potentially puts you in serious danger. We were able to change the tire and move on, sobered.
That scene on the road came back to me last month when I read that a dozen missionaries and five children, plus a Haitian driver, had been kidnapped by a Haitian criminal gang and were being held for $17 million in ransom. This marks the third week they have been held.
The missionaries were working with Christian Aid Ministries, a joint mission organization of Mennonite and Amish groups, based in Ohio. They had gone to Haiti in the wake of yet another earthquake to help rebuild homes and were returning to their quarters when they were abducted. Like Michael Wnek and many others, they were not permanently based in Haiti but there on a short-term basis.
This is a common practice among American Christians, and I’ve known many people who participated in these mission trips. They are usually carefully orchestrated and safe but never risk-free.
Haiti is a different case. Decades of political and economic instability have yielded a country on the edge of collapse. According to a recent report from National Public Radio, Christian relief organizations are committed to remaining in Haiti, but the situation is proving more difficult. The gangs that operate with impunity have now blocked deliveries of fuel, perhaps in an attempt to further destabilize the government, and at least one aid organization has been forced to suspend its operations.
Edward Graham, an official with Samaritan’s Purse, the charity founded by his father, Franklin Graham, told NPR, “You have to have security there. We have a very robust security team where we have subject matter experts that do the risk assessments, but also we have teams on the ground.”
Graham said following the recent earthquake, trucks would leave Port au Prince with relief materials bound for Les Cayes.
“Those trucks were getting robbed, the drivers were getting beaten up. So we stopped doing that, and we had to fly in most of our equipment,” he said.
It’s unclear whether Samaritan’s Purse would sanction the use of weapons to protect its people, but the Christian Aid missionaries belong to a strictly pacifist tradition and would never engage in violence for defense of themselves or their children.
There has been little progress in efforts to free them. The FBI is reportedly working with Haitian government officials as part of “a coordinated effort,” according to the White House.
Christian Aid Ministries has turned to a higher power. An update on its website earlier this week said, “Voices from around the world continue to cry out to God to sustain the hostages. … Throughout the long days of waiting, a special network of global prayer support has gathered around the hostages and their families. Every 15 minutes of the day and night, the torch of prayer is passed on.” (Instructions on how to join that network can be found on the website, christianaidministries.org.)
The tragic irony of Haiti is that it is more desperately in need of compassionate assistance than ever before but less able to protect those who are trying to help.
Cary McMullen is a retired journalist. He is the former religion editor of The Ledger.

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