CALLEBAS, Haiti — Desperate parents in this struggling village perched above Haiti's earthquake-flattened capital said they gave their children away willingly, trusting the American missionaries who promised to take them to a better life.
The stories the villagers told The Associated Press on Wednesday contradict claims by the Baptist group's leader that the children came from orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives. But they also attest to the misery of a nation that was the hemisphere's poorest even before the Jan. 12 earthquake struck.
The 10 Baptists, most from Idaho, were arrested last week trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without the required documents, according to Haitian authorities, who have accused them of child trafficking.
The Americans are to appear Thursday before a prosecutor who will decide whether to file charges or release them, Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue told the AP.
Even Prime Minister Max Bellerive has said he recognizes the Americans may simply be well-meaning do-gooders who believed their charitable Christian intent justified trying to remove the children from quake-crippled Haiti.
"There is no government in Haiti," their lawyer, Jorge Puello, argued Wednesday by phone from the Dominican Republic.
Standing amid piles of debris that used to be their homes and the makeshift shelters of tin and plastic sheeting that have replaced them, the people of Callebas told how they came to surrender their children.
It all began last week when a local orphanage worker, fluent in English and acting on behalf of the Baptists, convened nearly the entire village of 500 people on a dirt soccer field to present the Americans' offer.
Isaac Adrien, 20, told his neighbors the missionaries would educate their children in the neighboring Dominican Republic, the villagers said, adding that they were also assured they would be free to visit their children there.
Many parents jumped at the offer.
"It's only because the bus was full that more children didn't go," said Melanie Augustin, a 58-year-old who gave her 10-year-old daughter, Jovin, to the Americans. Ironically, Augustin had adopted Jovin because her birth parents couldn't afford to care for her.
Adrien said he met the Baptists' leader, Laura Silsby of Meridian, Idaho, in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26. She told him she was looking for homeless children, he said, and he knew exactly where to find them.
He rushed home to Callebas, where people scrape by growing carrots, peppers and onions. That very day, he had a list of 20 children.
In a jailhouse interview Saturday, Silsby told the AP that most of the children had been delivered to the Americans by distant relatives, while some came from orphanages that had collapsed in the quake.
"They are very precious kids that have lost their homes and families and are so deeply in need of, most of all, God's love and his compassion," she said calmly, sitting under a mango tree.
Puello told the AP on Wednesday that the missionaries "willingly accepted kids they knew were not orphans because the parents said they would starve otherwise."
Bellerive has suggested the Americans could be prosecuted in the United States because Haiti's shattered court system may not be able to cope with a trial.
"It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents. And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong," the Haitian prime minister said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attempt to bring undocumented children out of Haiti was "unfortunate whatever the motivation" and the Americans should have followed proper procedures. She said U.S. officials were in discussions with Haitian authorities about how to resolve the case.
The Americans' journey began last summer after Silsby and her former nanny, 24-year-old Charisa Coulter, resolved to establish an orphanage for Haitian children in the Dominican Republic. Coulter is among the jailed Americans.
They began buying up used clothing and collecting donations from their Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and in November, Silsby registered the New Life Children's Refuge Inc., the nonprofit organization coordinating the rescue mission. It listed the address of her now-foreclosed home in Meridian as its headquarters.
Then the quake hit. Silsby and Coulter moved into high gear, gathering donations and assembling a team to go into Haiti and urgently take out children, the younger woman's father, Mel Coulter, told the AP from his home in Kuna, Idaho.
"Laura's living room basically became a warehouse. They had more supplies than they could take with them," the 57-year-old Coulter said.
The group packed 40 plastic bins of donated goods into a U-Haul trailer and drove to Salt Lake City on Jan. 22, where they took a flight to the Dominican Republic. They made their way to Haiti, where four days later, they were introduced to Adrien.
As they loaded children onto a bus in Callebas on Jan. 28, the Americans took down contact information for all the families and assured them a relative would be able to visit them in the Dominican Republic.
"The children were very happy. They were running around and laughing," Augustin said.
Adrien, who had served as the go-between and translator for the missionaries, said he had no knowledge of the group's larger plans; villagers said they were told none of their children would be offered for adoption.
Laurentius Lelly, a 27-year-old computer technician, said he gave up his two children, ages 4 and 6, because Silsby had previously visited the area and earned people's trust.
Lelly said he is no longer so sure about her trustworthiness and is worried the Haitian judicial system will not properly investigate the case. No Haitian police or social welfare investigators have visited the village since the Americans were arrested at the border, the parents said.
"I would like to find out if these people were really going to help the kids or were trying to steal them," Lelly said.
The children, ranging in age from 2 to 12, are now being cared for at the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince. An official there, Patricia Vargas, said none of the children who were old enough to talk said they were orphans.
A Haitian-born pastor who said he worked as an unpaid consultant for the Baptist group insisted Wednesday the Americans had done nothing wrong.
The Rev. Jean Sainvil told the AP that some of the children were orphans and might have been put up for adoption. Children with parents were to be kept in the Dominican Republic, and would not lose contact with their families, Sainvil said in Atlanta.
"Everybody agreed that they knew where the children were going. The parents were told, and we confirmed they would be allowed to see the children and even take them back if need be," he said.
Sainvil stressed that in Haiti it is not uncommon for parents who can't support their children to send them to orphanages. Such children accounted for some of the 380,000 orphans that Haiti, a country of 9 million, had before the quake.
Most parents said they wouldn't know what to do if they had to take the children back.
"I am living in a tent with a friend," said Lelly, who said most of his wife's close relatives were killed. "My main concern is that if the kids come back I'm not going to be able to feed them."
Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho, and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta contributed to this report.