A Haitian gang are demanding a $1 million ransom for each of 17 Christian missionaries kidnapped from an Ohio-based group in the country to build an orphanage.
The 400 Mawozo gang has threatened to kill each abductee if the demand is not me.
The kidnapping, which sent shockwaves across the world and catapulted Haiti to the centre of an international crisis, happened October 16th. The gang accused of kidnapping the group consisting of Americans and Canadians as they returned from a visit to build an orphanage has been named as 400 Mawozo.
The group have gained notoriety for mass kidnappings and the ransoming of religious groups in the troubled Caribbean country.
The kidnappings follow an upsurge in terrifying abductions taking place across the beleaguered nation, sparking a string of protests to highlight the problem in recent months.
The most recent kidnappings have accelerated challenges in a country that analysts increasingly term as a failed state, located just 700 miles from the Florida coast. The abductions — another instance in a surge of kidnappings this year by armed gangs that control large areas of the country — have ramped up pressure on the fragile and furiously divided interim government that stepped in following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July, a murder which remains unsolved.
Haitians from all walks of life have found themselves embroiled in the lucrative ransom racket, in which victims are held for days or longer whilst captors, families and authorities negotiate their release. Kidnappings of fuel trucks and their drivers have led to power and fuel shortages across the country, and shipping contractors have refused to send drivers through key international routes in the country because of Haitian police’s inability to secure key roads that are controlled by or overrun with dangerous gangs. For Haitians rich and poor, gang terror and abductions for ransom have become a tragically common part of everyday life.
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, has a dire record of the world’s highest kidnapping rate per capita. The 400 Mawozo gang was responsible for 80 per cent of abductions in Haiti from June to September, according to Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, the Haitin capital. Haitian officials say the group is responsible for the recent kidnappings of the mainly American missionaries.
Last Tuesday, Haiti’s justice minister, Liszt Quitel, told the Washington Post that the gang is demanding a $1 million ransom for each hostage.
Quitel said that the gang were likely expecting to negotiate, and added that she wasn’t clear whether the five children involved, including an 8-month-old baby, were included in the ransom amount. A local human rights group said that their Haitian driver was also kidnapped. According to Scripps Cleveland starion WEWS, the missionaries were returning from helping to build an orphanage when they were kidnapped. Christian Aid Ministries, the group the missionaries were involved with, has confirmed that the adults range in age from 18 to 48 and that the five children are aged 8-months, 3, 6, 13 and 15 years old.
“Usually they request more, then people close to the kidnapped persons will negotiate,” she said.
“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” an agency spokesperson said on Sunday (17 October) confirming that 16 U.S. citizens had been kidnapped. “We have been in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and will continue to work with them and interagency partners.” (One of those kidnapped is a Canadian.)
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, has said that President Biden is receiving “regular updates” on the efforts of the State Department and FBI to secure the release of the hostages. Meanwhile, unions in Haiti launched a general strike last Monday in the wake of the kidnappings to protest the nation’s deteriorating security situation.
Those kidnapped in the recent attack are members of the Ohio-based group Christian Aid Ministries, and were kidnapped near Port-au-Prince as they paid a visit to an orphanage. In a terrifying video posted to social media on Thursday, the group threatened to kill the hostages if they do not get what they are demanding.
The group’s leader, Wilson Joseph, is dressed in a blue suit in a video, carries a blue hat and wears a large cross around his neck as he says he is prepared to murder the missionaries.
“I swear by thunder that if I don’t get what I am asking for, I will put a bullet in the heads of these Americans,” he said in the grim video.
He also threatened Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry and the country’s national police chief as he spoke in front of the open coffins that apparently held several members of the gang who were recently murdered.
“You guys make me cry. I cry water. But I’m going to make you guys cry blood,” he said. In the wake of the horrifying abductions, Henry’s office announced on Thursday that Leon Charles had stepped down as head of the National Police and had been replaced by Frantz Elbe. According to newspaper La Nouvelliste, Elbe was the director of the police departments of the South East and Nippes, and has previously served as general security coordinator of the National Palace.
“We would like for public peace to be restored, that we return to normal life and that we regain our way to democracy.” Henry said.
Meanwhile, Christian Aid US are clinging onto faith as the US works on the kidnapping case. Just before the release of the distressing video message from the gang, the religious organisation appealed for prayers, asking supporters to share stories with the victims’ families of how their faith assisted them through difficult times.
Weston Shawalter, spokesman for the religious group, said that the families of those kidnapped are from Mennonite, Amish, and other conservative Anabaptist communities in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ontario, Canada. Shawalter read an emotional letter from the families, in which they said: “God has given our loved ones a unique opportunity to live out our Lord’s commands to love your enemies.”
Inviting people to join them in prayer for the kidnappers as well as those kidnapped, they expressed gratitude for help from “people that are knowledgeable and experienced in dealing with” such crises.
“Pray for the families. They are in a difficult spot,” Showalter said. Responding to the video, the organisation later issued a statement saying it would not comment on the disturbing footage “until those directly involved in obtaining the release of the hostages have determined that comments will not jeopardise the safety and wellbeing of our staff and family members.”
Executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Centre in Millersburg, Ohio, said that: “Many people in the community feel helpless, but they also realise the power of prayer and the power of our historic theology,” including the Anabaptist belief in non-resistance to violence.
Evidence of the unsettling uptick in kidnappings in the country, on the same day the missionaries were kidnapped, a gang also abducted a Haitin university professor, according to a statement from Haiti’s Office of Citizen Protection. The ombudsman-like Office also noted that a Haitan pastor kidnapped earlier this month has yet to be released despite a ransom being paid.
“The criminals…operate with complete impunity, attacking all members of society,” the organisation stated. Meanwhile, UNICEF said on Thursday that the number of women and children kidnapped in the first eight months of 2021 has outnumbered the total for the whole of last year.
“Nowhere is safe for children in Haiti anymore,” the organisation said. “Whether on their way to school, at home or even at church, girls and boys are at risk of being kidnapped anywhere, at any time of the day or night.” UNICEF said that 71 women and 30 children have been kidnapped so far this year, which is up from 59 women and 37 children last year.
In a poignant plea for prayer and peace, Christian Aid Ministries wrote in one statement: “Join us in prayer that God’s grace would sustain the men, women and children who are being held hostage. In a world where violence and force are seen as the solution to problems, we believe in God’s call to Christians to ‘…not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21). Pray that those being held hostage could find strength to demonstrate God’s love.
“The kidnappers, like all people, are created in the image and likeness of God and can be changed if they turn to Him. While we desire the safe release of our workers, we also desire that the kidnappers be transformed by the love of Jesus, the only true source of peace, joy, and forgiveness.”