Gang danger everywhere: Haiti native shares family's own kidnapping story

Bryce Buyakie
The Daily Record
Myriam Raber, a dentist in Ohio, talks about life in Haiti. Raber was born and raised in Haiti, and is the youngest of 11 children.

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When Myriam Raber's nephew's family was kidnapped by the 400 Mawozo gang during Easter, her heart dropped. She was stunned but not surprised.

Messages flood her phone every day. WhatsApp notifications from family, friends and groups for businesses and neighborhoods light up her screen. Each message is a snapshot of the deteriorating situation in the small Caribbean nation. 

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"People have to protect themselves, so they use WhatsApp," said Raber, a Haitian native with a dental practice in Ohio.

The messaging app allows her family and other Haitians to find safe routes throughout Haiti to avoid local gangs like the 400 Mawozo being blamed for kidnapping 17 missionaries and family members — 16 Americans and one Canadian — working in Haiti under the sponsorship of Christian Aid Ministries. 

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Once taken, multiple missionaries messaged their director and told him where they were, CNN has reported. 

But such apps also aid gangs, providing them numerous contacts to negotiate a ransom. That's when powerbrokers enter the picture.

As with the missionaries, Canadian and American governments promised her nephew, an American citizen, niece-in-law, a Canadian citizen, and their two kids aid that never arrived. 

"They acted like they would support us but they never did," Raber said. 

This coupled with decades of strings-attached American interventions and the recent expulsion of Haitian migrants, Raber believes the U.S. government cares little for the people of Haiti. 

"I hope that these missionaries being kidnapped is what makes the American government realize how much Haiti needs help," she said. 

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Haiti kidnappings over 600 people in 2021 alone

Myriam Raber, a Haitian native who lives in Ohio, discusses the kidnappings being carried out by Haitian gangs.

Members of the infamous 400 Mawozo gang hit her nephew with the butt of a gun during each phone call. It was a show of force to negotiate for a better ransom, she said.

She remembers hearing from family members how they threatened to kill his two kids or beat his wife if they didn't pay up. 

For five days, the family of four was tied up outside of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, with four other detainees waiting for aid that never came. 

This year alone, 628 people were reportedly kidnapped, including 29 foreigners, according to the Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights that is based in Port-au-Prince.

Nearly 10 years earlier, the Haitian anti-gang task force might have intervened as it did when her two nieces were kidnapped, but that force is a shadow of its former self, Raber said.

"The police are in the pockets of these local gangs and often help them," she said.  Above the police are politicians whose pockets are lined with gang money.

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She calls this a "gangocracy" — where the local levels of democratic power are controlled by gangs. Elections still go on, but she said, the gangs hold real influence.

With little to no local or international support, families like Raber's are left with few options but to pay the ransom.

"Everything was closed because it was Easter week, but we got the money and ransomed them after five days," Raber said. 

Her family collected and took out loans to meet the $60,000 payment. 

'Things have been getting worse and worse'

Now, after years of kidnappings and corruption, Raber's family and friends have begun leaving their home nation. 

Raber herself came to America in her 20s to study dentistry. She went back to Haiti for about six years after getting her degree and returned to the U.S. in 2001 with her American husband. Raber and her husband decided to make America their home when "we were starting to notice dead bodies in the street" and kidnappings were beginning to happen in Haiti.

For Raber, the fact her family has decided to leave Haiti, the place they have called home for more than 200 years, demonstrates how bad the situation has become.

Her 28-year-old friend Ricardo was the subject of an attempted kidnapping recently, just as he decided that he wanted to leave Haiti. 

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A group of armed men stopped his bus after work and took their cellphones and attempted a mass kidnapping, Raber said, translating a long message from Ricardo.

"It was his first incident," she said.

Once he got home, he used his mother's phone to text Raber. 

"He'd been texting me that things have been getting worse and worse and if I could help him get out of the country," she said. "I said, 'Well, I'll see what I can do, but in the meantime, go get your immunization Moderna shots.'"

A COVID-19 vaccine would overcome one entry barrier to certain nations if he decided to leave, she said. 

While Raber is limited in what she can do, she tries to provide advice and some help when possible to her friends and family in Haiti. 

"There are people now asking me how they can leave Haiti who never asked me that before," she said. 

To give their children better lives, some family members wait until the late months of pregnancy to visit a foreign country to give birth. There the newborn would gain dual citizenship and quick access to that country.

"There are so few means to leave the country," she said. "Legally it can take up to 15 years to become a U.S. citizen, but some might rather risk coming illegally because it's worth leaving Haiti behind."

Follow Bryce Buyakie on Twitter: @Bryce_Buyakie.