SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Nikese Toussaint was at church, so she didn’t see the text message from her sister.
All she knew at that point was that their brother and his wife, who live in the U.S., had landed safely in Haiti to visit ailing 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: their brother, an accountant; his wife, a social worker; and another person were snatched off a public bus amid a surge in gang-related kidnappings.
Toussaint took a deep breath. Not again, she thought.
Seventeen years earlier, gangs had kidnapped two of her cousins in the capital of Port-au-Prince. They were eventually released but remain traumatized.
This time, the gang that kidnapped her brother, wife and another person is demanding $200,000 – each.
"How are we ever going to come up with that money?" Toussaint told The Associated Press in a phone interview
Monday from the U.S.
The kidnapping occurred March 18, and since then, her brother, Jean-Dickens Toussaint, has been allowed to make only two brief calls.
All his family knows is that he and his wife, Abigail Michael Toussaint, are tied up. The phone calls are too brief to ﬁnd out if they are being given food or water or treated generally well, Nikese Toussaint said.
The couple were on their way to JeanDickens Toussaint’s hometown of Leogane, which many Haitians believe organizes the country’s best Rara festival. Three pandemic years had gone by since he last led a Rara band 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 singers as they parade through the town behind band leaders like Toussaint in an homage to the slave revolution that led Haiti to become the world’s ﬁrst Black republic. 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 on as it tried to cross Martissant, considered ground zero for ongoing violence that has worsened since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
The gangs apparently noticed the suitcases in the bus and zeroed in on 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 vanished. It’s not unusual for gangs in Haiti to refuse to release kidnapping 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 that point. We don’t want to take any more risks."