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Humanitarian in Haiti kidnapped for 13 days: lives amidst horror and anarchy with his wife and children

During the initial days of my captivity, the thought of dying in that place haunted me relentlessly. My mind would spiral into the darkest places, and I struggled to redirect my focus. I tried to avoid thinking about my family, as the pain of separation only intensified my distress.

  • 1 month ago
  • April 11, 2024
10 min read
Esteban and his wife at their school teaching. | Photo courtesy of Esteban Zambrano Esteban and his wife at their school teaching. | Photo courtesy of Esteban Zambrano
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Esteban Zambrano, a 34-year-old educator from Chile, has been a resident of Haiti since 2018. In Haiti, Esteban found love and companionship with Carolina Da Silva, a Uruguayan who made Haiti her home twelve years prior. The couple has since built a family through both adoption and birth, welcoming two Haitian daughters and a Haitian son into their lives, and celebrating the arrival of their biological daughter. As a teacher, Esteban is dedicated to enriching the lives of his students and is deeply committed to his family and community.
background information
Haiti’s crisis has deepened since President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination, with violent gangs seizing critical infrastructure, exemplified by the recent mass jailbreak of over 3,600 prisoners, intensifying public terror and prompting Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s resignation (EFE). The situation, marked by grave human rights abuses led by figures like former officer Jimmy Chérizier, has drawn sanctions and international calls for action, as reported by the UN and human rights organizations (HRW, UN News, Amnesty International).

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As a Chilean living in Haiti since 2018, each year I watched the country change. In Haiti, things happen quickly and dramatically. For this reason, the chaos of kidnappings and armed conflicts between gangs and police felt unsurprising. Still, while I expect volatility in Haiti, I never thought the situation would devolve to the current level of disorder and anarchy – despite experiencing trauma myself in 2022.

Two years ago, a gang kidnapped me in Haiti. I spent 13 harrowing days in captivity, wondering which would be my last. As terrifying as that was, I find the situation today even more daunting. My family and I live under siege. We venture out only for essentials, and even then, we remain on high alert. With constant gunfire in the streets, leaving home feels like a gamble. Each time, you never feel sure you will return.

Read more conflict stories at Orato world Media.

Struck by the humanitarian crisis in Haiti, man travels to a troubled nation

I remember at 17 years old; I got home from school and began watching television. Suddenly, a report about Chilean troops providing humanitarian aid in Haiti appeared on screen. As a Christian, at that moment, I felt a call from God. Alone in my living room, I whispered, “Yes, I will go.” Getting to Haiti one day became my mission.

From that moment on, I became consumed by a desire to learn everything I could about Haiti. I started gathering information and figuring out how to get there. Soon enough, all my plans were in place to make the trip in 2010. Then, a cholera epidemic swept through the country, and I had to abruptly cancel my journey.

It wasn’t until 2018 I finally made it to Haiti. At the time, the country grappled with social instability, and a United Nations intervention was underway, including troops from Chile. I read about the extreme poverty I would encounter, but the breathtaking beauty of Haiti’s beaches and mountains took me by surprise. My initial stay lasted a month and a half, but I knew in my heart I wanted to make Haiti my permanent home.

My special love for Haiti only grew stronger over the years. This love is hard to explain, but it feels as profound as any love I ever felt. It feels like I married Haiti when I realized God led me there. In Port-au-Prince, I met Carolina, who became my wife a year later and the mother of my children. Our lives remain deeply intertwined with this beautiful, troubled country. Despite the challenges we face, I refuse to have it any other way.

Kidnappings surge in Haiti, family seeks refuge amidst threats and gunfire

Back then, Carolina ran an orphanage, and as a teacher, I naturally gravitated toward education. We established a school in the city, creating a peaceful life for ourselves. However, rumors shattered that tranquility when kidnappings began to echo through the streets. The danger crept closer and closer to our doorstep. First, we heard of a kidnapping 10 blocks away, then eight, and eventually, just three blocks from our home.

Esteban showing a map to his students at the school in Haiti. | Photo courtesy of Esteban Zambrano

One day, while walking down the street with my children, gunfire erupted. It happened near our home, a place where we always felt safe. The adrenaline surged through me as I scrambled to find safety for my children. In those terrifying moments, my Christian faith became my anchor, giving me the strength to believe we would make it.

Then, we heard rumors that gang members were specifically looking for us, and we knew we had to leave. We found refuge in another part of Haiti, staying there until the storm seemed to pass, and we cautiously returned. As a parent, navigating such dangerous times takes a delicate balance. You have to shield your children from the harsh realities without keeping them in the dark. There’s a stark reality in Haiti that remains impossible to ignore, but some details become too brutal to share. However, in 2022, the unimaginable happened.

My 7-year-old daughter and I drove to a Spanish course I taught at a local community. It felt like any other day in Port-au-Prince, where “normal” remains a relative term. Amidst sporadic gunfights and kidnappings, we adapted to a routine of constant vigilance, staying updated with the news and keeping each other informed of our whereabouts.

Humanitarian kidnapped: “One of them pointed a gun at me while the other forced his way into the car…”

As we wrapped up the day and headed back home, just three blocks from the house on a deserted dirt road, two young men on a motorcycle abruptly blocked our path. They quickly sized me up as a foreigner, which in their eyes equated to being a wealthy businessman. One of them pointed a gun at me while the other forced his way into the car, shoving me into the back seat.

The one driving seemed no older than 19 years. In a panicked attempt to flee, he ended up driving the car into a ditch. Fortunately, they decided to release my daughter. She bolted from the car, tears streaming down her face, terrified but unharmed. Thanks to our daily walks, she knew the area well enough to navigate her way home safely. I held onto hope that nothing further would happen to her. We were near a police academy, and with the car stuck in the ditch, I believed it was only a matter of time before the officers realized what was happening, but that realization never came.

As the minutes ticked by, the kidnapper, in a moment of desperation, left the gun between the car seats. The weapon sat a few inches from my hand, and for a fleeting moment, I considered seizing it to end this nightmare. Then, a Bible verse flashed through my mind, “Not by might, nor by sword, but by my holy spirit,” I thought. It echoed in my head, urging me to forget the idea of confronting my captors and surrender to whatever fate had in store. About 15 minutes later, they managed to free the car from the ditch and drove me to an abandoned house.

During my captivity in Haiti, I thought I would die

In a cramped room three square meters wide, with a single window blocked by a piece of wood, I found myself sharing space with an African man who worked for the United Nations. The soldiers who brought me there treated me with hostility, constantly reminding me of their power. Yet, in that confined space with my fellow captive, I discovered a common bond: we were both Christians.

That night, we shared a moment of prayer and praise. As we sang and prayed, the previously hostile soldiers returned, not with threats this time, but with a lamp and an extension cord to light up our dark room. They sat with their guns in their laps, quietly observing our prayers. In that moment, I began to sense a greater purpose in all of this, a realization that gave me the strength to carry on.

During the initial days of my captivity, the thought of dying in that place haunted me relentlessly. My mind spiraled into the darkest places, and I struggled to redirect my focus. I tried to avoid thinking about my family, as the pain of separation only intensified my distress. At one point, I suffered a severe asthma attack.

Struggling to breathe and lying on the floor, I reached a point of total surrender, no longer fighting to hold on. The guards moved me to the corridor, where a slight breeze offered some relief. As the exit door opened, the sight of a beautiful blue sky and a majestic mountain struck me. I felt as if God spoke to me through nature, and a deep sense of peace washed over me. I knew I would leave that place alive.

Negotiation took place, humanitarian returns home unharmed

One morning, the leader of the kidnappers woke me up with news that filled me with a mix of hope and anxiety. “If your wife does everything right, you’re leaving in a couple of hours,” he said. From that moment, time seemed to stretch on endlessly. The morning dragged by, and it wasn’t until around 2:00 p.m. that the negotiation finally took place.

Suddenly, they took me to a car and drove to a certain point within their control zone. A friendly motorist, who had been granted access, was waiting to take me home. Once reunited with my family, the relief and joy of being back felt indescribable. Life went on, but experiences and sensations from the kidnapping lingered in my mind, making me wary of everything. Even a simple walk down the street could feel stressful. However, I am gradually rebuilding my confidence.

Now, a year and a half after the kidnapping, the situation in Port-au-Prince remains incredibly complex. We now navigate our lives strategically considering every movement and knowing when to stay put. The country teeters on the brink of civil war, if it hasn’t reached that tipping point already. The gangs wield immense power and control, far beyond what the national police can handle.

Esteban and his wife with some of their students. | Photo courtesy of Esteban Zambrano

Our small school, housed in the same building where we live, remains one of the few constants in our lives. Yet even this place has no immunity to the chaos outside. We often suspend classes. Recently, we did so when the leader of a nearby gang escaped from prison and gunfire erupted. It becomes a stark reminder of the situation we live in and the resilience we must muster to keep going.

Life remains dangerous in Haiti: “We feel helpless, unable to do anything to change the situation.”

Sometimes, my wife or I venture out to do the shopping, but never together. Our children no longer accompany us. The streets become a terrifying sight, filled with the pungent smell of dead bodies that lie unattended and decomposing. I have even encountered the charred corpse of a dead person on the sidewalk. This grim reality over the last year continues. On days when it becomes too dangerous to go out, we rely on the kindness of acquaintances to bring us food.

The walks I once enjoyed with my children are a thing of the past. Now, we spend all our time together in the safety of our home. This feels especially tough for those of us who love the outdoors. It feels like an extended pandemic. Fortunately, we have a spacious house which allows each of us to find our corner when we need solitude. We keep our spirits up with bonfires, storytelling, and board games, cherishing the moments together.

The overall mood, however, remains bleak. We feel helpless, unable to do anything to change the situation. During a recent visit to the bank, my wife spoke with some people who expressed a chilling resignation: “We are waiting for death to come.” Hope seems to have vanished. As a teacher and a Christian, I share the message of Christ, believing it provides solace in these trying times. I cling to the belief that while humans can take physical life, Jesus offers eternal life. I hold on to that every day.

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