Nikese Toussaint was at church, so she didn’t see her sister’s text.
All he knew at the time was that his brother and his wife, who live in the US, had safely landed in Haiti to visit sick relatives and prepare for Rara, a colorful and boisterous festival born out of the dark days. of slavery.
It wasn’t until Toussaint got home and her sister followed up the unread text with a phone call that she learned her warnings had materialized: her brother, an accountant; his wife, a social worker; and another person was snatched from a public bus amid a surge in gang-related kidnappings.
Toussaint took a deep breath. Not again, he thought.
Seventeen years earlier, gangs had kidnapped two of their cousins in the capital, Port-au-Prince. They were eventually released, but remain traumatized.
This time, the gang that kidnapped his brother, wife, and another person is demanding $200,000 each.
"How are we going to find that money?" Toussaint told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday from the US.
The kidnapping occurred on March 18, and since then her brother, Jean-Dickens Toussaint, has only been allowed to make two brief calls.
All his family knows is that he and his wife, Abigail Michael Toussaint, are tied up. Phone calls are too brief to know if they are being given food or water or if they are being treated well in general, Nikese Toussaint said.
The couple were on their way to Jean-Dickens Toussaint’s hometown of Leogane, which many Haitians believe hosts the best Rare festival in the country. It had been three pandemic years since he last led a Rara gang through those streets, and the 33-year-old accountant was excited to resume his role as “colonel.”
Rara is similar to a carnival, with drums, bamboo instruments and metal horns accompanying the singers as they parade through the city behind gang leaders like Toussaint in a tribute to the slave revolution that led Haiti to become the first black republic in the world.
But the celebration was cut short. The Toussaints, who are from Tamarac, Florida, never made it to Leogane.
Gangs stopped the public bus they were traveling on as it tried to cross Martissant, considered ground zero for ongoing violence that has worsened since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021.
The gangs apparently noticed the bags on the bus and targeted the couple and the person accompanying them on the trip, Nikese Toussaint said.
The family paid someone they trusted $6,000 to give to the gang, but the money disappeared. It’s not unusual for gangs in Haiti to refuse to release kidnap victims even after they’ve been paid, but Toussaint believes it was a scam.
“That’s when we said, ‘Uh oh, we have to get help,’” she recalled. “We didn’t know what to do at the time. We don’t want to take any more risks.”
Toussaint said his family is in contact with the FBI, which is helping with the case.
“To the gangs, I want to say, we want to get our family back. We are not rich here,” said Nikese Toussaint.
A US State Department statement said the agency was aware of reports of the kidnapping of two US citizens and was in regular contact with Haitian authorities.
The kidnappings are the most recent targeting US citizens, though most of the victims are Haitians, ranging from wealthy business owners to humble street vendors. In the first two weeks of March alone, at least 101 kidnappings were reported, with another 208 people killed in gang clashes during that period, according to the UN.
Ongoing violence in Port-au-Prince and beyond has also displaced at least 160,000 people as warring gangs burn down neighborhoods in their bid to control more territory.
It’s been over a week since the Toussaints were kidnapped. His family is trying to stay strong because the couple have a son who turns 2 on Tuesday.
“We are trying to smile,” Nikese Toussaint said of her video calls with the boy. “We have to smile with him and give him love, and at the same time get a little smile (from him), and that’s when the pain gets a little bit stronger.”