It is estimated that there are 59,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in Haiti (GSI 2018). The majority of Haiti’s trafficking cases involve children trapped in domestic servitude as restavèks. They are often physically abused, receive no pay and have significantly lower school enrolment rates. As a result of this, many children flee employer’s homes or abusive families, becoming street children. Moreover, female foreign nationals, especially from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labour in Haiti. Other vulnerable groups include children in residential care centres, children working in construction, agriculture, fisheries, and street vending, along with internally displaced persons as a result of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
Alina “Tibebe” Cajuste was given away as a child to live as a restavèk (a child in Haiti who is sent by their parents to work for a host household as a domestic servant because the parents lack the resources required to support the child). Alina was forced to work long hours with no breaks, no days off and subjected to physical abuse daily. One day Alina finally escaped, travelling to Darbonne to find her mother who told her about her father and why she was given away. Alina found her father and his family, however after his death she was not accepted by the family. Becoming so low, Alina states that it was only with the help of a women’s organisation that she was able to feel like she existed in society.
My name is Alina Cajuste, alias Tibebe. I will never drop the name Tibebe. It is a slave name.
Only now do I feel that I'm starting to live. I never had a childhood, I never had a grown-up who cared for me, took me in. Only when I was grown did anyone treat me as a human being. Now people say to me, "You must get better, you must learn to laugh." And I say, "Well, I never had that opportunity since I was born." That's how my life has been.
This is a sad sad story to the world. As a child I was given away to a woman to live as a restavèk, a child slave. A woman who used to come sell in the market in Leogane told my mother to give me to her. My mother had no support, so she had to give me to this woman. I don't know how old I was. My mother was totally illiterate; she didn't give me my age.
When you work as a restavèk at someone's house, you're a slave. What did this woman make me do? I had to get up before three or four o'clock in the morning to make the food, sweep the floor, and wash the car, so that when the family woke up everything would be ready. Then I had to wash dishes, fetch water, and go sell merchandise for her in the countryside. When I came back from the marketplace, I would carry two drums of water on my head, so heavy, to wash up for her. Then I'd go buy things to make dinner. And I couldn't even eat the same food as her. If she ate rice, I only got cornmeal. I didn't even wear the same sandals or dresses as her child. My dresses were made out of the scraps of cloth that were left over from what was sold in the marketplace. I couldn't even sleep in a bed.
She treated me terribly. She used to torture me and beat me and break my head open. I was climbing Calvary, my own mountain of suffering. I would ask her if I didn't have a mother or father. She would answer, "You want to know? Here!" and she would take a stick and beat me. That was how I got treated when I was a restavèk. That's how children who are given away to other people's homes live. Like I said, you're a slave. Now there are a few places that look at restavèk as human beings. But before, you were in major slavery.
One time things got really serious for me and I underwent a lot of torture. This woman sold cloth, and she went to the marketplace with a permit which gave her the right to sell. One day when I went to Leogane to sell for her, she forgot to give me the permit. And what happened? The police came. The police arrested me with all the merchandise. They thought I was going to escape with her goods.
They locked me up and wouldn't release me. I spent three days in prison and the woman didn't come get me. After three days she came to the area to ask if anyone had seen me. They told her, "Oh, Tibebe's in prison." My mistress would have left me there forever. A neighbor who was selling in the market said, "Why don't you go help her?" The mistress said, "She stole my merchandise." The other woman said, "Tibebe's no thief. She's just a child."
A long time ago when you were in prison, they did nothing for you. Other prisoners had to share their food with you. So, by the time I got out, I was in terrible shape. The woman who kept me never even asked me how I was. She didn't even take me to get washed. She just sent me right back to work. She said, "Go and fill two drums of water," so I just kept right on working. She never even considered me a human being.
When they released me, the neighbor said to her, "You took someone's child to make her suffer misery like that? She helps you, she brings in money to give you. Why do you do that? You didn't give her food, you didn't ask her if she had eaten today. You should have taken up her case first, just shown the permit and gotten her released, then bathed her and cleaned her up. Only then should you have gone after the merchandise."
My mistress answered, "And what about all the money I had tied up in that merchandise? What are you saying to me?"
The neighbor said, "Oh, that poor little thing." She told the others, "All right, I'm going to find her mother." And she went, truly true. She found my mother, whom I never knew from the time I was little.
Then the neighbor came back and told me, "Why don't you run away? Before you go out to sell, collect your things and put them on the porch and escape." And I did it. I really did escape. When I ran away, that was my second Calvary to climb.
When I got to Gressier, an officer stopped me as I was walking along the road. He asked me, "What town are you going to?" I said, "I'm going to the place called Darbonne. That's where they tell me my mother is."
Then the officer saw the cuts and bruises on me. I had a big cut on my foot, and he said, "Did they beat you? Someone who beats a person like that . . . What did you do? Did you steal?" I said, "'Im no thief. I've never stolen anyone's money."
He said okay, and a group of police took me to see my mother. They insulted her. They said, "Madam, you have a little girl, you don't know who she'll be tomorrow. Why did you give her away?" My mother said that she used to do the wash in one man's home. The man raped her. And then I was born.
I asked my mother how she had had me, why she had had me. Then I asked who and what my father was, how he had made me. That was when my mother explained to me how I was conceived, how I was born. While she was washing and ironing at the home where she lived, the son of the household grabbed her and threw her down on the ground. He held her down and ripped her body apart. My mother was bathed in blood and that's when she conceived me.
While she was lying on the ground, the master of the house came and said, "What are you doing lying there? You seem very relaxed." He said, "You're supposed to be doing washing. What do you think you're doing? Staying in a guest house?" He forced her to get up. She had clothes to wash and iron, and supper to cook.
Soon she started feeling so sick she couldn't work. But when they saw that my mother was slowing down in her work, they said, "Girl, you can't stay here and continue like this! "
My mother explained her situation to a neighbor who went and told the lady of the household, "That girl is pregnant;' and told her what had happened. The woman said, "I don't know what you're talking about. It's impossible that one of my children would sleep with some servant." "But your son raped her! You must take the child:' The woman answered, "Oh, you think that my son would want that type of person? That's not possible."
When they saw that my mother's stomach got big, and that she couldn't hold her body very well, they said they couldn't keep her in the house. The man who raped her said she was too low to bear his child. My mother was a restavèk; she didn't have the right to give her child the father's name or even to acknowledge that it was his baby.
So she went and lived in the street. I was born right in the middle of the street at an intersection. I came out black. I was so black I really couldn't have access to my father. A market woman who was passing by cut my umbilical cord with a Gillete. Another woman came to bring my mother a towel. They made that woman my godmother. Anyway, I don't know that person. I don't even know her name. I just heard this.
From the moment I was born, it's been humiliation. When I was baptized in the middle of the street, they just gave me a little paper but it got lost. My birth was never even registered.
I told my mother, "Ah, so my whole life, it's been spent in the street." She
said, "Well now, that's because of your father."
When I was just a baby on her shoulder, my mother went back home. That's when she gave me away to the woman who abused and tortured me. Actually, after my mother gave me away, she'd forgotten me.
I said, "Well then, Mama, why don't you show me to my father? Maybe my father's family will take me." So my mother showed me to someone from my father's family. When the relative saw me, she cried. She said, " Lord, you look so much like my family, you must be my relative. We'll take you." Then she cried and said, "I heard someone say that my brother had grabbed a girl who was working in his house and that she had had a baby girl who was never recognized. We'll take you. But we have to go back to your mistress's house." She said, "Take me to the woman you lived with." I said, "I don't need to show you that woman. When my father had me, he didn't recognize me as his child. After all I've suffered, now you say you're interested in knowing the people I lived with?" She said, "No, we must meet the person before we hold onto you, so she doesn't get us into trouble and say we stole you." I said, "Okay, we'll go back to the house and show that woman that I 'm worth something."
Truly true, we went back to my mistress's house. She said, "Oh, Tibebe has relatives?" My aunt said, "Yes, she has family. It was my brother who fathered her but I never knew her. Now that I see her, I'm very happy. I'll take her." So she adopted me. But she didn't really adopt me. I was still an orphan. The fam ily of t h e person who raped m y mother didn't really accept me a s part of the family, but my life was a little better than it had been at the woman's house.
The woman I had worked for had just called me Tibebe. That was the only name I knew. So now I asked my aunt-she said yes, you may call me your aunt because you are a person the same as me-"But what's my real name? Where's my birth certificate?" My aunt answered, "You don't have a birth certificate."
But she said, "I remember when they threw your mother out, your father got engaged to another girl. So then your father got married, and that child was born about the same time as you." The person who raped my mother was Cajuste. That sister of mine was Ali n a Cajuste. She had died. So now my aunt took the birth certificate and gave it to me. I must tell you I was never really born and registered. Alina Cajuste is not really my name. It's the name of a dead person that I have. My aunt said, "Now you are Alina Cajuste."
I asked, "Am I a human being? Then why did you let me undergo so much misery? Live with a person who tortured me?" My aunt cried as if someone had died. Me, too, I felt water flowing from my eyes. She said, " Listen, my brother said you weren't his. The mother was just a servant at his home who used to wash and iron clothes." I said, "Oh well, se lavi. That's life. It seems that my life is to be spent this way. It seems I'll never exist in this society."
I said, "What can you do to get me into school?" She said, "You're already grown. School won't take you. We should show you how to sign your name." I said, "Sign my name? That's all?" She said, "Yes, that's all we can do for you. And I'll give you one little room to live in. I can't do anything else for you."
Then my father became poor. All his business and his money were lost. He got very sick and I was the one who had to take care of him. When he was dying, he called for me, calling me Tibebe because that's the name I always went by-while I always called him msye, sir, to his face. He said "Tibebe, I am your father." I said, "Now you tell me." He said, "Everyone has regrets." And he spoke to me of his errors. I said, "I’ll help you. Whatever I have, I must help you with that. Don't worry, you don't need to acknowledge me as your child." Then I was happy. Up 'til then, he hadn't even admitted he knew me. I 'd been an orphan. I had been a person who had been rejected and now I was able to help him.
All of his family was living abroad. None of them helped with his funeral. I had to make all the arrangements and pay for it all myself. I kept saying to myself, "Look at this child that he never needed, and now I'm doing his funeral." I repeated this the whole time. When I was at the burial, I told my father, "You never took care of me. If you had taken care of me when I was a child, now I would do more for you. But it's a restavèk doing your burial now." Then his sisters got mad. They said, "This is a child who was given away to someone to be a servant. Why does that child have our brother's last name?" They didn't recognize me. To this day, only that one aunt recognizes me. If she's going by in a car, she'll stop to speak with me even if she won't welcome me at her home.
Once she drove by and I said to the woman selling in the market next to me, "That's my father's sister, you know." "You're kidding! " the woman said. "If she's your relative, how come she drives a fancy car and you're living in the streets?" I told her that's because I'm an indigent, and because I was cast out as a servant's child, like a baby in the bulrushes. A few other members of my family recognize me-l don't mean really recognize me as a person, no, just acknowledge that I'm alive.
If you're a child born of rape, everyone, even your mother, considers you worthless. That's how my life has been up to the present; my life is burdened this way. I feel like a baby who was left on a doorstep in a rotten basket.
Once I got down so low, I was crying in the middle of the street. A woman asked me, "Why are you crying like that?" I said, "I can't see any future except to kill myself."
She said, 'I’ll take you to an organization." I said, ''I'm not going into any organization to get beaten up and killed." In those days the military was killing people who were organizing. She said, "No, it'll be good for you. This will help you so you won't kill yourself."
And truly true, I went to a meeting. I sat down, holding my handkerchief in my hands. I was thinking about my life. But then all the women introduced themselves to me. I told them I was called Tibebe, the slave name I've always held onto. They asked, "Why do you want to kill yourself? You don't have the right to kill yourself." They tried to sing with me but I said, " I don't know how to sing:' They asked me if I knew how to read. I said no. So they did a little literacy school with me. They said, "Here's how you mark to write your name." Then they asked me how old I was. I'm an illiterate so I never knew my age. They said, "Go get your birth certificate to show us." Then I went and got my birth certificate. There was a woman there named Rica who read it for me. She said, "You were born in 1952." I said, ''Ah, tell me again." She said, "You were born on April 7, 1952." I said, "Okay, thank you."
The women's group helped me and my knowledge. They showed me that what the woman had done to me in the restavèk system was violence and torture. It was the women who made me understand that you don't beat children. I came to see that when someone says something humiliating to me, that personis humiliating herself, not me.
That's when I started to become like a child. I started playing with the women. They said, "What makes you so playful?" I said, "Medanm, women, I've never played in my whole life. I stayed in a woman's home as a restavèk." Then they said, "But what about the games you played with other children when you were a child?" I said, "I never played as a child." Now whenever I go to meetings, the women always play with me. Now I know what it feels like for a child to play. I've come to live my childhood, the one I never had. Only when I was grownup did anyone treat me as a human being. Now I can smile and laugh, before I couldn't.
The women looked at me as a human being, the same as themselves. That's where I was first given encouragement. I saw that I was living. They made me feel like I exist in society. I became a person.
Reprinted Alina “Tibebe” Cajuste, “Getting the Poetry”, from Walking on Fire: Haitain WOmen’s Stories of Survival and Resistance, by Beverly Bell. Copyrights © 2001 by Beverly Bell. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press