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After battling diseases in Haiti, this doctor is now fighting for his kidnapped son

Dr. Jean William “Bill” Pape, addressing crowds outside of his Port-au-Prince medical facility, GHESKIO, demanding the freedom of his son, Douglas Pape. The 33-year-old agronomist was kidnapped on Nov. 28 near his coffee farm in the hills above Haiti’s capital.
Courtesy of GHESKIO
Miami Herald
Dr. Jean William “Bill” Pape, addressing crowds outside of his Port-au-Prince medical facility, GHESKIO, demanding the freedom of his son, Douglas Pape. The 33-year-old agronomist was kidnapped on Nov. 28 near his coffee farm in the hills above Haiti’s capital.

He led Haiti’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic after cutting its death rate from waterborne cholera by more than 50%.

Now, Dr. Jean William “Bill” Pape has become a victim of his country’s vicious cycle of gang violence and kidnappings.

Dr. Pape’s son, Douglas, was abducted on Nov. 28 near his coffee farm in the mountains of Belot, above Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. Nearly two months after he and another man were abducted by four men at gunpoint, the 33-year-old agronomist remains captive.

A video sent by his captors last month showed the young man being beaten and psychologically tortured, according to those who have seen it.

“Nothing is working,” Father Richard Frechette, a Roman Catholic priest and medical doctor in Haiti, said in an open letter, requesting the help of the international community in securing Douglas Pape’s freedom. “It is over 30 days of degrading captivity, of death threats with videos of abuse by his kidnappers, and with three failed ransoms.”

The next step, Frechette said, is the closing of GHESKIO, the renowned HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis research organization that Pape founded in 1982 and has continued to run even though one of its sites is across from a known gang-controlled kidnapping lair.

Staff members, Frechette said, are thinking, “If this can happen to Dr. Pape’s own son, what is our own security?”

“Fear for themselves and their families, heavy mental distraction and anxiety, and the inability to focus on their vital tasks as the GHESKIO team makes it impossible for them to continue,” he wrote, noting the serious risk for AIDS and tuberculosis patients if the facility were to shut its doors.

On Wednesday, GHESKIO employees and members of the community who benefit from its health services launched a second day of protests. They demanded the release of the young Pape without conditions. The day before, protesters were joined by many of the 360 students enrolled at a school run by the organization, along with Dr. Pape. As the crowd held placards that read in Haitian-Creole, “If GHESKIO closes, what are we going to do?” Pape addressed them with a bullhorn.

People, he said, have claimed that he made money treating cholera and COVID cases. “Everyone knows that I was helping; I never received a cent for the work I’ve done in the country,” he said. “As a thank you, they kidnapped my child who was working in agriculture.

“You all know that it’s a sector…that no one wants to work in,” he continued. “All of his friends left, but he chose to stay because he wanted to work with the farmers. This is how they’ve thanked me.”

Since the ordeal began, Pape has amassed letters of support from various organizations, including the Haitian Medical Association Abroad and the National Academies of Medicine, which sent a letter to both the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy and the French ambassador in Port-au-Prince. Others also plan to reach out to Canada’s ambassador as well.

On Tuesday night, the staff signed a letter directed to Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who worked with Dr. Pape on both Haiti’s response to cholera and COVID-19. Hoping to pressure Henry to do more to help, the staff recounted Pape’s impressive resume. It includes serving as a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, sitting as a member of the World Health Organization Scientific Council, and his pioneering work with HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Pape’s reputation, the letter states, “is directly linked to the sacrifices made to set up the GHESKIO Centers in order to fight, alongside the Ministry of Health, against old and emerging scourges which have eroded and still erode the health of the people.”

“More than 20,000 patients are currently followed at GHESKIO and receive their treatments,” they said, recalling the thousands who were treated underneath tents after the country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

The purpose of the letters is to pressure Henry, as well as the U.S. and French embassies to do more, says a person familiar with the campaign.

Henry, who has had close relatives, collaborators and fellow doctors fall victim to kidnappings, has not publicly responded but has been in touch with Pape and had staff member reach out. His office has taken a hard-line stance by refusing to pay ransoms while refuting allegations that his government has ties to bandits. Instead, it offers the services of the government, like the police.

For Haitian nationals who are kidnapped, however, it is often not enough. Unlike foreigners who have the benefit of local embassies, or in the case of U.S. citizens, the FBI, to help them negotiate, Haitian nationals often only have themselves to rely on.

As ransom kidnappings continue to see an alarming spike — the United Nations reported almost 3,000 cases last year — abductions have become increasingly more sophisticated as victims are held for longer and subjected to abuse. In a recent recount of his ordeal, Jeff Frazier, a Florida resident and army veteran who was kidnapped in Haiti, said he was held for 43 days and “ beaten, terrorized and tortured” before his wife was able to secure his release with a ransom payment.

Adding to the complications, it’s not easy to identify the captors. Smaller gangs are increasingly carrying out kidnappings for other gangs or individuals, stashing them with other armed groups. This means that the ransoms sought are often exorbitant amounts to ensure that each group gets it cut. And payment, as in the case of Douglas Pape, does not always guarantee release. Families have reported making multiple payments before victims are freed.

In some cases, the police have managed to free victims. But in the majority of cases people are freed because of a ransom payment, which can range from a few thousand U.S. dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Police, meanwhile, not only lack the ability to get into gang-controlled neighborhoods, but are unable to trace certain phone calls. They also lack experienced negotiators to help Haitian families.

Many of the Haiti National Police officers trained in recent years by France and others in hostage negotiations inside the country’s anti-kidnapping unit have left Haiti, most of them under the two-year humanitarian parole program the U.S. launched a year ago this month, according to a source familiar with the inner workings of the agency.

This story was originally published in the Miami Herald, a WLRN News partner.

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