When a Haitian man walked up to Noel Ismonin, a pastor from Ottawa. Canada, working in Haiti, and offered to sell him an orphan boy for $50, he refused and managed to rescue the child.
That story, repeated on television and in newspapers around the world last week, galvanized attention to a horrid problem that seemed to arise full blown from the rubble of the earthquake in Haiti.
Up to 1 million children are orphans of the earthquake, and unscrupulous traffickers are snatching them and selling them into slavery.
This week, in fact, Haiti arrested 10 Americans and accused them of kidnapping and human trafficking. The police chief, Frantz Thermilus, angrily asserted: "What surprises me is that these people would never do something like this in their own country."
Well, Mr. Police Chief, what surprises me is that you sanction child slavery in your own country. In Haiti, even at the best of times, hundreds of thousands of children are enslaved each year -- starved, abused, beaten and raped. And it's perfectly legal.
Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Haiti knows that the country is desperately poor. The nation has "the highest rates of infant, under-5 and maternal mortality in the Western Hemisphere," UNICEF says. "Diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS are the leading causes of death."
Only about half the nation's children attend school. Most of the rest are child laborers, and "as many as 2,000 children a year are trafficked to the Dominican Republic, often with their parents' support," UNICEF adds. (Trafficked is a government euphemism for being sold into slavery.)
And every year, thousands of desperately poor Haitian families hand their young children over to wealthier families in Port-au- Prince or other towns with the supposed agreement that the child will be fed, clothed and educated in exchange for working around the house. That's not the way it usually works.
There's a term for these children: restaveks, from the French words "reste" and "avec," which means "rest with," or "stay with." The vast majority of these children, as young as 6, are turned into house slaves.
Everybody in Haiti knows.
Nearly two-thirds of the children given away as restaveks are girls, and it's no wonder they are preferred. Child rape in these homes is commonplace.
Domestic servitude is a common problem around the world, even in the United States. Police prosecute a dozen or more of these malefactors each year. But these cases are episodic, even unusual. Even in less developed countries, like Thailand and India, where domestic servitude is common, it is still illegal, and at least occasionally perpetrators are prosecuted. Not so in Haiti. Even the State Department gives Haiti a pass because, it says, "Haiti has had a weak government" since 2004.
The department's annual human-trafficking report chastises and penalizes countries whose efforts to fight human trafficking are deemed insufficient. But Haiti is put to the side as a "special case," along with Somalia, the world's most dysfunctional nation, even though in no other country is child slavery known to be so commonplace.
Still, the department wrote in its most recent report: "Haiti is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation." The majority of the victims, it says, are up to "300,000 restaveks," most of whom are "girls who are between 6 and 14 and work excessive hours, receive no schooling or payment and are often physically or sexually abused."
The police, it adds, "do not pursue restavek trafficking cases because there is no statutory penalty against the practice." Of course most everyone in the world is watching with horror and sympathy as Haitians pull their dead from the rubble and try to reclaim their lives. The Haitians' own shameful practices do not give others license to traffic Haiti's children. But, if and when normal life returns, I hope the United States and other nations with influence in Haiti will push at last to end a barbaric practice that enslaves hundreds of thousands of children. How can they not?
Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. E-mail him at email@example.com McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE