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Haiti's Lost Boys

Fort Dimanche prison in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, houses 120 boys ages about 6 to 16, some arrested on vague charges, others netted mistakenly in police sweeps.
Fort Dimanche prison in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, houses 120 boys ages about 6 to 16, some arrested on vague charges, others netted mistakenly in police sweeps. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

But releases are few at Fort Dimanche, and a relentless stream of youngsters flows into the prison, the loud clang of metal gates signaling the beginning of an ordeal with no foreseeable end.

Little Baron's path to Fort Dimanche began on Port-au-Prince's airport road, where street children live amid the stench of rotting mountains of garbage. Like countless Haitian children, he was pushed into the streets by parents who couldn't afford to raise him, he says. By age 5, he was sleeping in the rusted carcasses of burned cars and picking through garbage heaps for food.

With no government social services to aid him, Little Baron gravitated toward "the big guys," his name for the young thugs who dominate the slums where he foraged. He became a kind of gofer, running errands that he won't talk about.

"I did favors," he said cautiously during a break between classes. "I did what I had to do to eat."

One of those favors -- he won't say which -- landed him a year ago at Fort Dimanche and Cell C-4. He shares the approximately 20-by-12-foot cell with 28 other boys, 13 of whom sleep on the concrete floor because there are not enough bunks. The cell has its own hierarchy -- one of the oldest boys at the prison, a lanky 16-year-old, decides who sleeps on the floor.

"Some of these big guys are rapists and kidnappers," Little Baron whispered. "They boss us around."

When the cell door latched shut one recent afternoon, the noise inside was deafening, and the nearby latrine cast a foul odor into the crowded space. Little Baron took a flying leap into his bunk, trailed by a skinny kid who caught up with him and pounded him in the ribs.

In the next bunk, 11-year-old Ricardo Exgentis broke into a rap song he'd written during an arts class.

"Life is not easy," Ricardo rapped in sing-songy Creole. "Separation. We don't know our brother, our sister. We living like dogs. That's bad for Haiti."

Ricardo, who was arrested for banditry and sent here more than two years ago, took his first shower at Fort Dimanche. Living on the streets, he washed only when he could afford a bucket of cold water. In prison, Penette-Kedar's group has taught him how to bathe properly and brush his teeth.

But the shower still feels new and strange to Ricardo. He says he feels uncomfortable being naked among all those boys and sometimes flees without rinsing off the soap.

Talking about prison life made him angry. Rapping offered an escape.


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