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July 13th, 2009
11:58 PM ET

A capacity for cruelty is never justified

Dr. Sanjay Gupta | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

Last week I was in Haiti, where I spent my time walking around with an adorable young gal named Deena. She was 15 years-old, and was born and raised in Haiti.

Within minutes of meeting her, there were things that were impossible not to notice. Her clothes were ragged and clearly too small for her. She hardly ever smiled, and if she did – it was fleeting and purse-lipped. She didn’t look me in the eyes, and in fact spent most of the time staring at the ground.

Her voice was weak, and, her body was frail. When I touched her back, I could feel a hollow space. As part of her introduction, I was told Deena was a Restavek, which in Creole means to “stay with.” Our guide Jean Robert Cadet was more blunt. “Make no mistake,” he said. “She is a child slave.”

Strong words, I thought. I wanted to see for myself and that is why I found myself in a shanty town outside Port au Prince, Haiti at 5 a.m. last Sunday. It was already well over 90 degrees and there was no breeze whatsoever. We were soaking in our shirts just standing there, which makes what I began to see that much harder to imagine.

Hundreds of kids, ranging in age from 4 to teenagers, were making their way down the surrounding hills that were covered in small huts. They all carried a bucket, most of which were five gallons in size. Fill a bucket with five gallons of water, and it is around 40 pounds in weight. A lot to lift, let alone carry - for about a half a mile up stairs and ill defined rocky paths.

While the water hole was at sea level, most of these Restaveks carried the water up small mountains, more than a 1000 feet in the sky. And, Deena was right there with them, and would do this not once, not twice, but seven times a day. And that is just for starters.

She would also clean the hut, empty the chamber pots (there is no plumbing, obviously), wash all the dishes and get on her hands and knees to mop the floors. She does all this while the inhabitants of the home, who told us they are her relatives, sit back and watched.

Deena performed all of this work before 10 a.m., and then it was time to go and work at her owner’s home. We learned that she was being “lent out’ this particular morning. Mind you, Deena is not paid, and she is hardly fed – just scraps at the end of the day.

A 2006 picture of poor housing conditions in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Hundreds of thousands very young children have been handed over to 'host' families to work as Restaveks.

A 2006 picture of poor housing conditions in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Hundreds of thousands very young children have been handed over to 'host' families to work as Restaveks.

All of this comes with the constant threat of physical abuse, which she - at one point - received almost daily. She has been thrown into walls and whipped mercilessly, while being made to kneel on a cheese grater. As it turns out, whips are sold openly in the market, with the express purpose of child whipping. Half of the girls have been sexually abused and Deena told me no one has ever shown her one sign of true affection. It wasn’t until the age of 14 that someone gave her a hug.

That someone was Jean Robert Cadet, who himself was a Restavek 40 years ago. He cries when he tells me how little has changed since he finally escaped his awful life. He has now dedicated his life to trying to solve the condition of other Restaveks through his foundation called the Restavek Foundation.

He is slowly making progress. He focuses on trying to get kids into schools, as it seems to be their one chance. He has reunited Restavek children with their biological parents and is working on establishing funding for transitional housing for these children, with the hopes of adoption. Deena is on his list, and in the days and weeks to come may finally be freed from her owner.

As you read this, you may take issue with the term slave. Fair enough. According to Anti Slavery International, a slave is 1) forced to work, through mental or physical threat 2) owned or controlled through mental or physical abuse 3) dehumanized, treated as a commodity.

As I read this and looked at Deena, I could not see how she could be defined as anything but a slave. I finally did get a chance to confront Deena’s owner, and you can see that in our full video report.

I caught up with Jean Robert the next day and ask him – “in the end, does this all happen because of poverty?” He is adamant. “No, no, no. Poverty doesn’t explain how one human being can treat another this way,” he exclaims.

I realize he is right. While there is a capacity for cruelty that have formed some of the most abominable chapters in our human history, there is never a justification. Jean Robert calms down, wipes his eyes and says “I don’t understand how anyone could treat a child this way. I look into the eyes of children, and I see angels.”

To learn more about restavecs and the organizations like the Restavec Foundation, that are working to end this ‘modern day slavery” in Haiti, visit our Impact Your World page.

soundoff (77 Responses)
  1. Erin Dulaney

    Will last night's report be broadcasted again or posted on the blog?

    July 14, 2009 at 10:01 am |
  2. Melissa

    Horrifying.

    July 14, 2009 at 9:55 am |
  3. Marie Carmelle

    That was a terrific job Sanjay to bring the subject to the world. Born and raised in Haiti, the situation of children has always been a concern. Those children have been used and abused by politicians, Non profit org. and even their own parents. It is time to have a change for those children, it is time to have someone stands up for them to make the government do their job; the department of "Bien Etre Social" (equal to DCF, Department of Children and Families) to be effective. All those kids around you Dr. Gupta in the slum are only children who need food, medical care, to be loved in order to become confident in life.
    As an Haitian native I can simply say thank you very much Dr. Sanjay Gupta to bring this concern to the world.

    July 14, 2009 at 9:45 am |
  4. Welile

    Hi Sanjay.
    This is quite a compelling thing you have reported. I would be very carefull to say this is slavery as I am more curious about people that live with these kids, are they relatives or 'owners' as you have said it. The reason why I am quite carefull to get to any conclusion as to whether these are kids are any slaves in any way slaves at all is because I'm more curious about the relations that they have with the people that they live with. I'm saying this because I can relate to this in one way or another. I am originally from South Africa and caring water is part of what I had done when I was growing up living with my grandmother and my two other sibling back in the villages on South Africa as my parents were in the cities to try gather means for us to be better people in future. I'm looking foward to the full report.

    July 14, 2009 at 9:42 am |
  5. Rolex S.

    Dr. Gupta, your report about child slave in Haiti is wrong and and inaccurate.
    There is no child slave in haiti.Those children are not held against their wild.Most of them are born from parents who are unable to care for them and end up living with strangers.Some of them are really mistreated and it is wrong.The Haitian society does not see them as slave.I think the interest of these children would have been better serve had you gone to the minister of social affairs in Haiti and asking the top Haitian officials why those children are living in these conditions? Most of the time these children are better off instead of living on the streets with no plac to live and to eat.Call the Haitian consulate in Washington to have the full picture of the situation.

    July 14, 2009 at 9:22 am |
  6. aref dee

    It is easy to criticize the relatives of this poor girl, until we realize that one day she will grow up and have kids of her own and most likely treat them the same way. Will be be criticizing then the same girl we are showing so much sympathy to now?
    Remember "children learn what they live and children live what they learn..."
    This is such a powerful story by Dr. Gupta I just hope it explodes into the consciousness of millions of people galvanizing us as individuals and governments to do something to stop this terrible tragedy.

    July 14, 2009 at 9:14 am |
  7. Sonia

    Sadly this continues to happen to date because we all pretend slavery is no longer a part of our culture. I am so happy that you are doing this story, hopefully it will force us to stop looking the other way and actually do something about this... I would love to know what I can do to help these children. They deserve better.

    July 14, 2009 at 9:08 am |
  8. Gretchen

    Great article. I had a chance meeting with Mr Cadet while in Haiti and bought his book, Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American. It is a memoir of his life and tough to read at times, but it is very important for Americans to know that there are thousands of child slaves within a 90 minute plan ride from Miami.

    I stayed with a relatively wealthy family on one of my first trips to Haiti, and it took me a while to realize who this particular girl was that was in their house. She carried in buckets of bathing water for the man of the house, served their food and then I saw that she slept outside on the cement while the rest of us were on beds in a nice house. This approximately nine year old girl was their slave.

    Thank you for this article.

    July 14, 2009 at 8:57 am |
  9. Jack

    Why don't you mind your own business. Why must the US always try to make the rest of the world live up to it's standards? Get out and leave other cultures alone! This is a perfect example of why I left the US, never to return.

    July 14, 2009 at 8:31 am |
  10. Nadine Dolby

    Please do more stories about Haiti!

    We are in the long, arduous process of adopting a little girl from Haiti, and have been to Port au Prince twice in the past year to visit her. Though my husband and I have traveled and lived around the world, we were both appalled by the impossible and devastating situation there–and only a 90 minute flight from the U.S. Americans need to know more about what is going on there, and what can be done to help.

    Nadine D

    July 14, 2009 at 8:23 am |
  11. Wendy

    As sad as this story is, there are many Restaveks here in America, especially in South Florida. Although we have child protection laws in this country, many remain silent because they have no where else to go, since their family is back home in Haiti. Thank you for this story and shedding light to this issue. I hope the Restavek Foundations gets the support it needs.

    July 14, 2009 at 8:22 am |
  12. Allen Bayard

    Sanjay,

    This was so sad and heart breaking to watch especially with me living in Haiti and not even realizing that something like this is going on. I would like to help and believe I'm in a position to do so.
    Please Contact me while you're in Haiti as I would really like to see how I can help along with my company.

    July 14, 2009 at 8:14 am |
  13. paul, milwaukee,wi

    Dr. Gupta,
    You need to find Dr. Katie Wolf MD from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
    She runs a privately funded clinic in the rural areas of Haiti.
    'Friends for Health in Haiti'. She can show you more of the injustice and corruption in HAiti.

    July 14, 2009 at 8:13 am |
  14. chantal

    Dr. Gupta

    Coming from Haiti i know all too well how is the situation in Haiti it is one of the sad part of Haiti. At least this girl you meet was 15 sometimes they are much more younger and yet they have to take care of the older children in the house. The way the it suppose to happen this children come form the countyside of Haiti and because their family have no way to provide for them in exchange the parents would agree to send his/her daughter to stay with someone in the capital Port-au-Prince in exchange the person would agree to feed them take care of them and also send them to school but often it does not happend like that and it's unfortunate people do take advantage of this young children. Nice story.

    chantal

    July 14, 2009 at 7:52 am |
  15. PD

    Joe G's comments make sense until he blames the situations he descrbes on the Obama administration policies. Get Real Joe and try to see more of the story regarding the Restaveks in Hatti.
    A paycheck is given in exchange for a service it's obvious a Restavek isn't receiving one.
    The other situations, illegals, sex trade, credit card debt, the growth of these issues come about because of greedy opportunistic people who have lost a conscience – including our law makers. In America and in the world decent people, kind hearted people, down to earth, salt of the earth, help your neighbor kind of people, honest business, law enforcement, and politicians can make a difference – one person, one law and one policy at a time. So Joe, don't blame Obama – it just shows your hot air and not your substance. And if you want to blame him, get your facts straight.

    July 14, 2009 at 7:34 am |
  16. Joana

    There are many US Christians who go down to Haiti for short term mission trips. And many of them do very admirable work. But I have heard many groups report on their Haitian experience, but I had never heard about the Restaveks. What are American Christian groups - working with their Haitian partners - doing to address this issue?

    July 14, 2009 at 6:53 am |
  17. raquel rita

    slavery in many places... even in brazil, a country well talked these days, hiding cruel realities.
    thank you for the report. it should be in the media everyday.

    July 14, 2009 at 4:46 am |
  18. ashmar

    Sanjay, a good report .Very hard to believe the way children are treated in haiti. It really hurts me, What can i do to abolish this?

    July 14, 2009 at 4:34 am |
  19. Judy,MI

    Dr Sanjay, thank you for enlightening the world. Does our president know about this? Bush was so enthused about getting his hands on oil and fighting someone elses battles ,trying to right a wrong in a country that's use to voilence & killing. Here is a cause worth fighting for. "Save the Children".

    July 14, 2009 at 3:43 am |
  20. Melissa

    Sanjay,

    Thank you for sharing this. I can't believe in this day and age there would be slavery till this extent. I can't imagine what these kids are going through. Hopefully more could be done to end their sufferings.

    July 14, 2009 at 3:41 am |
  21. Kelli

    I will be sharing your report everywhere I can. Thank you for bringing awareness to this heartbreaking reality.

    July 14, 2009 at 3:36 am |
  22. sabrena cole

    dr sunjay gupta story doesnt prove to me slavery this proves poverty,we need to help haiti out of poverty,i grew up carrying water wher i came from,we had to go on our knees and clean floors because we didnt have cauum or electical appliance to clean floors,my chores were different because of what we had that's how we did what we had to do,i didnt like the word "slavery" being used,slaves went through harsh lives,stop confusing slavery with poverty.where are the slave masters with whip.haiti need help to overcome their poverty.

    July 14, 2009 at 2:24 am |
  23. natalie w.-cleveland,OH

    thanks for traveling around the world and bringing attention to matters such as these. it's sad how occurences like this happen on a daily basis, and so many of us are oblivious to it all.

    July 14, 2009 at 2:21 am |
  24. Angel

    Anderson and Sanjay, before you call a lifestyle in 3rd world country slavery and start looking for psychological impact that kind of life will have on the children raised up in that country, you may need to go further to interview other children in those countries who have struggled through those life style and have grown up to be successful adults. That girl Sanjay helped to carry the 5 gallon of water is not the only child living in that country in abject poverty. You may need to find someone here who lived through that lifestyle, went to school, become educated and is successful in this country. That person can clearly educate you on the lifestyle and what it means to live like that; that is the good and bad. There are millions of us here. What we need in those countries is a way to improve their livelihood and not call the lifestyle that 99% of the population live as slavery. Your definintion of slavery in this sense is diminishing the meaning of slavery.

    July 14, 2009 at 1:32 am |
  25. Harry Saintil

    Sanjay,
    Thank you for your report on this heart broken situation in Haiti. It is incredible to think that at less then one hour by plane from the most powerful country in the world we have human being in such "live" condition, especially kids. Unless there is a political coup or a devastating hurricane, the spoline in never on Haiti; a country who fought for its own freedom and became the first indepedant black nation in America in 1804, but yet to be freed from "RESTAVEK" 205 years after.
    What's hiding behind this "just exist" lifestyle is illiteracy, malnutrition, parasitosis(malaria, tape worm infestation, scabies...), tuberculosis, just to mention those few. Now just imagine the impact that could have to the US healthcare status if the Haitian diaspora would go back to Haiti and stay for a couple weeks, then coming back to the US after being exposed to those diseases. I'm not trying to be mean, but the US has a tendancy to react to a situation only if there is a imminent threat, and this situation in my homeland is a threat and we must do something in the name of Human rights.
    Thank you again Sanjay for giving us this opportunity to speak out to the US on this matter.

    July 14, 2009 at 1:15 am |
  26. Polo Jan

    I believe Dr. Sanjay and his crew did a great job coverying real story in Haiti. It is time for the reality as such (Restavek= modern Slavery), NOT to be existed there and specially a country that is America's neighbor and not even three hundred miles away. How can that be? Does America care?

    Thanks
    Polo

    July 14, 2009 at 12:54 am |
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