Horror in Haiti: Kidnappings are big business

It was a clear, cool evening in the hills above Port-au-Prince when Gregoire-Ronald Chery got the last phone call of his life.

Ronald, as his family called him, was on vacation in Haiti, sitting at the dinner table with his mother and cousins. They kept the side door open while they sat and talked. Through the iron security gate, they could see the house of their only neighbor and, beyond it, the lights of other houses flickering on a hill.

It was around 8:30 on August 27, 2010. Ronald's 16-year-old niece, Nadege, had excused herself and was upstairs watching TV in her mother's bedroom. His brother Jarmil was in the living room trying to fix a spotty internet connection.

The family had just returned from a yearly pilgrimage to their hometown of Jeremie to celebrate the holiday of St. Louis. Ronald had decided to join them this year only at the last minute. His job in Florida with the Department of Homeland Security frequently kept him on call.

The phone call was from a friend in Miami. Ronald stood up from the table with a toothpick in his mouth and flipped the phone open. "Hello?" He disappeared through the gate into the dark night.

His friend on the phone — and his family inside the house — heard him talking to another person. The conversation was quiet, and it sounded like someone had come up the street to chat with him. "Hi, how can I help you?"

Suddenly, his family heard a loud bang. It sounded as if it came from far away: Evenings in the hills are often peppered with distant gunfire. But as the family sat at the table wondering about the noise, they realized that someone was shooting at them. A bullet had gone right by the head of Ronald's mother, Viola, who was sitting with her back to the doorway. It flew a few feet above the scraps of meat and vegetables on abandoned plates and shattered a window on the far side of the room.

When Nadege heard the shot, she got up from her mother's bed and went onto the balcony to look down at the side entrance. She saw her uncle Ronald talking to three men in T-shirts and dirty jeans. They were pointing guns at him.

"Get on the ground," they told him in Creole. Ronald, ever the methodical diplomat, tried to stall.

"How can I help you?" he asked them. "What do you need? Money? Jewelry? Just let me know and we'll give it to you."

The guns didn't drop, so he tried a different tack. "Listen," he told them, "I'm a United States federal agent."

"Shut the fuck up," they said.

Nadege walked into her bedroom, praying, and dialed the police.

Thirty seconds, maybe a minute passed. When Jarmil heard a second shot, he stood up from the computer and peered out the window. He saw a man frantically pulling things from the ground, as if uprooting vegetables, and looking around with paranoid glances. There was no sign of Ronald.

Then the man froze. He saw Jarmil at the window and was staring straight at him. "You come out here!" the man with a gun shouted. "I'm going to shoot you too!"

Ronald and Jarmil were rarely far apart. They left Haiti for New York together as teenagers in 1965. Jarmil was the oldest, the guardian, and he was also something of a combative loudmouth. Ronald, by contrast, was calm and quiet — sometimes too quiet. Jarmil often had to ask him to speak up when he talked. But the brothers were inseparable, through high school and college in New York, and their respective moves to South Florida in the late 1970s. They spoke on the phone every day, often just to share what they were watching on TV. Now they were gearing up for retirement together: Jarmil in two years, Ronald in three.

Jarmil drew back from the window, his heart pounding. He decided to channel the cool confidence of his brother. He left the computer and walked up a single stair into the dining room, heading for the door. He wanted to reason with the visitor, talk him down, offer him money if necessary. But he didn't get a chance. The men had come inside. One of them was tying up Nadege's father, using his own shoelaces to bind his hands. The men were twitching with anger, maybe stimulants. Their eyes were blood red.

Upstairs, Nadege knelt by the front of her bed, staring at the glowing numbers on her phone. The number for the police wasn't working. She tried again and again. Nadege prayed that her father would stay calm and wouldn't do anything to anger the intruders. They were probably looking for jewelry or money, she thought, and it would be best not to stand in their way.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph