Excerpt from A Crime So Monstrous by E. Benjamin Skinner, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Crime So Monstrous

Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery

By E. Benjamin Skinner

A Crime So Monstrous
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2008,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2009,
    352 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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The martinet first fell on his back. He held his tongue, and held on to the rocks. Then she beat him harder. As Bill screamed, she whipped him everywhere -- his head, even his eyes. The other children watched in horror. After twenty minutes, Bill's blood lay in pools on the cement floor. The rocks were still in his hands.

< On January 1, 2004, Aristide told a small crowd assembled in front of the gleaming white presidential palace that Haiti was "the mother of liberty" in the world. But the world had seen enough of Aristide's brand of liberty. Dozens of national leaders were invited to mark Haiti's bicentennial: only the prime minister of the Bahamas and South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, showed up.

Haiti, too, had seen enough of Aristide. It was coup season again. Reminiscent of Baby Doc's last days, mass protests spread from the countryside as rebels seized Cap Haitien, where the original slave revolt had begun against the French. They mauled Aristide supporters, and shot at Mbeki's helicopter. Rebel leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain explained that he intended to "liberate" Haiti, and compared Aristide to Napoleon's brother-in-law, who had failed to quell the slave revolt.

On February 29, a U.S. aircraft once again ushered Aristide into exile. Over the next ten months, foreign donors recalled millions of dollars in pledged aid. Haiti's GDP shrank nearly 4 percent while its population grew by 2.3 percent. Parts of Haiti fell out of government control entirely. The coup, combined with the Iraq War, pulled American attention away from the restavèks. Rural children once again slipped into the shadows, entering bondage in greater numbers than ever before.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded awareness campaigns to discourage child slavery, but the bulk of the money went toward billboards for a population that could not read, and television and radio jingles for a population without electricity. Three State Department officials monitored human trafficking part time, but department regulations curtailed their ability to find enslaved children and families.

For its 2004 report, the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) office begged off placing Haiti into its tier system, citing the lack of an organized government. The following year, TIP's evaluation was a confused and contradictory rehash of previous statements: "The Interim Government of Haiti does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Haiti is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for its failure to show evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking in persons over the past year."

UN organizations approached the issue of Haitian slavery as they handled modern slavery in many other countries. Without drama, without creativity, without effectiveness. The UN Human Rights Commission continued, as it had for fifteen years, to "express concern." From its air-conditioned and heavily fortified headquarters in Port-au-Prince, UNICEF issued lengthy studies on the problem of "children in domesticity," dancing around the issue of slavery, but explicitly refusing to employ the term.

Renel Costumé, muscular and clean-cut, wore a trim mustache and several gold rings. He looked several sizes too large for his airless office in a police precinct next to the national airport. Costumé, as head of the twenty-three-man Brigade for the Protection of Minors (BPM), led the national effort to combat the restavèk system. A 1995 graduate of Haiti's national police academy, Costumé soon learned why the UNICEF-funded BPM was a joke among his fellow officers.

As we spoke, he reached past his nonfunctional computer and fiddled mindlessly with my tape recorder, looking down and answering in low tones. At one point in the conversation, the electricity died, and we continued in darkness without even a fan to cut through the sweltering heat.

Copyright © 2008 by E. Benjamin Skinner

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