How to Buy a Child in 10 Hours

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Here we find Onise, an achingly beautiful 8-year-old with haunted eyes. Her parents, who live in the countryside, are so poor they simply gave Onise away to a slightly less poor family in Port-au-Prince.

Her owners promised her parents they would pay for Onise's education. But every day, when the other children in the tiny, one-room hovel where the owners live head off to school, Onise stays behind to do housework and run errands.

When we get her alone, she reluctantly tells us about her life.

"When was the last time you talked to your parents?" I ask.

"No," she says. Our translator expands: "She never talks to them."

"Do you miss your parents?"

"Yes," she says, in a nearly inaudible voice.

This child seems dead inside. The insides of her forearms are covered in scars.

"Do they hit you a lot?"

"Yes," she says.

"When you dream, when you think about the things you want to do with your life -- your hopes -- what do you think about?"

"I want to drive a car," she says.

The Promise of School

It is a bleak irony that Haiti is crawling with child slaves. This, after all, is the only nation in modern history to be founded as the result of a slave revolt, in 1804.

It's also a place where parents clearly take great pride in their children's appearance, dolling them up in elaborate school uniforms every weekday morning. Parents here also make massive economic sacrifices to send kids to school, in this country where, for the most part, there are no public schools.

Slave traffickers use Haiti's poverty and lack of opportunity to their advantage.

"They dangle like a diamond necklace the promise of school," says Skinner. As he explains, Haiti's system of child slavery began generations ago. Poor families from the countryside would give their children to wealthy families in the city. The children would do domestic work, but they would also be fed, clothed and educated. It was a sort of social compact.

Even though the system has now morphed into something grotesque, traffickers exploit the false, residual glow of altruism.

"You talk to the traffickers about this," says Skinner, "and they'll often say, 'Well, I'm doing a service to the family that's giving up this child.'"

This bogus sheen of charity is perhaps why we are able to get slave owners to talk to us on camera. (Perhaps it's also because having a slave is so commonplace as to be almost entirely uncontroversial here.)

We meet Onita Aristide in a shantytown precariously perched over a ravine filled with trash and also wild pigs and goats. Aristide is a mother of two who sells sandals in the local market. For four months she's owned a "restavek" nicknamed Ti Soeur (Creole for "little sister.") As usual, Ti Soeur comes from a poor family in the country and spends her days here in the city doing forced labor. She sleeps on the floor of Onita Aristide's tiny home.

"Do you think she has a better life with you than she would have with her parents?" I ask Aristide.

"Yes," she says.

"Why?"

"Because her family is poor and cannot afford to support her."

There are a bunch of hard questions I want to ask this woman, for example, why doesn't she send the girl to school? But the scars on Ti Soeur's arms suggest I should tread lightly.

Knowing Aristide doesn't speak any English, I broach the topic with our translator. "I don't want to push her so hard that she gets angry and takes it out on the kid. Do you think I'm correct?"

"You're correct," he says.

Ti Souer's Hope

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