Haitian singer Rutshelle Guillame was performing earlier this month over the long All Saints/All Souls Day weekend in the provinces where news doesn’t always come in real time, and cellular signals can be fleeting, when upset fans and critics began bombarding her social media pages.
When she finally arrived in Haiti’s capital, she learned the reason for their harsh attacks: Port-au-Prince high school student and kidnapped victim Evelyne Sincère was dead. Beaten and bruised, her lifeless body had been dumped on a heap of trash on the side of a road.
And Rutshelle, the most followed Haitian artist on Instagram with 1.2 million followers, was silent.
“I didn’t know they had kidnapped a young lady or that they had asked for a ransom for her and they didn’t pay, and they had killed her. I wasn’t even aware,” Guillaume, 32, said last week during a morning panel discussion on Port-au-Prince’s Magik 9 radio station, operated by Le Nouvelliste newspaper.
Sincère was gagged, blindfolded, beaten on the sole of her right foot, and according to a judge, possibly raped repeatedly during her captivity. The torture killing and grim discovery of her corpse on Nov. 1, has become a rallying cry for justice after photos of her and a video of her wailing sister discovering her nude body went viral.
In the days since, thousands of Haitians, many of them women, some of them social justice activists, others children purposefully dressed in their school uniforms, have filled the streets of the capital in outrage.
Haitian soccer players, competing in Jamaica, have paid homage by reenacting the kidnapping. They posed for photos with blindfolds and their wrists crossed as if they had been bound like Sincère’s in one of the circulated photos. And as her name trended on Haitian Twitter, human rights activists and civil society groups denounced the injustice done to her. Hers was among 162 kidnappings recorded this year in Haiti — 55 of them women, 12 of them minor girls.
In the month of October when Sincère was kidnapped and held over four days, 21 kidnapping cases were recorded, according to figures tracked by human rights groups. Five of the victims were women. Four were minors. October was also the month of the International Day of the Girl, a fact not lost on Dayanne Danier, a Haitian-American fashion designer whose Fleur de Vie nonprofit has made education and the plight of Haitian girls part of its charitable focus.
She views Sincère’s murder as more than an indication of Haiti’s worsening climate of violence, but part of the systematic abuse of women and girls that feminists in the country say is aimed at suppressing women.
“We’re dealing with a society where you have a consistent social injustice done to women and nothing ever happens, and yet we call them ‘Poto Mitan,’ ” Danier, 43, said, referring to the Creole phrase describing women as the backbone of Haitian society. “If you’re consistently imposing violence on your poto mitan, what does it say about your society? The situation of Evelyne Sincère’s is not rare. It happens in Haiti more often than people want to admit.”
On Friday, feminist activists with the Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen/Haitian Women’s Solidarity, or SOFA, staged a sit-in in front of the women’s affairs ministry before taking their protest to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security to demand that “the State stops protecting bandits, criminals and rapists.” Across the capital in the Delmas 24 neighborhood where Sincère’s body was found, a more solemn memorial unfolded.
As an artist spray-painted Sincère’s face on a wall, workers continued to clean up the site, and mourners, many of them strangers, some of them artists and social media influencers, lit candles and laid flowers.
“I live in a country where people’s lives and people’s bodies just don’t matter at this point and we’ve reached a point of misery that anything that happens is OK,” said Mattie Domingue, 30, an entrepreneur with 141,000 Instagram followers who organized the memorial with friend Christopher Philemon.
“This is not normal. This young girl, 22 years old, it could have been me, it could have been my daughter, it could have been my sister, it could have been my cousin. It could have been anybody tossed on top of a pile of trash naked, left lifeless,” she said.
Domingue said while she believes “this is the perfect time to wake up,” and is not fearful of speaking up, she understands the reluctance of others to put themselves out there and she has no judgment against artists and other social media influencers who do not.
“Not everybody’s meant to be a leader, to be a hero, but that’s OK,” she said. “One thing I have to say is that when you are famous or when you are in the spotlight, you have to use your voice.”
Is this the tipping point?
Much like in the United States with the videotaped killing of George Floyd by police on a Minneapolis street, some are hoping Sincère’s death will be that one killing too many in a nation besieged by kidnapping and gang violence and devoid of justice. After all, they say, her death and her life are emblematic, in so many ways, of all that is wrong with the Caribbean country — and all that it strives for.
“It’s not just Evelyne who they dumped on a pile of trash. It’s all of us who are on top of that trash,” said Nadine Mondestin, 42, a feminist with SOFA.
Sincère’s sister, Enette, alluded to the same point. She told reporters in Creole that her baby sister had died because “she lives in Haiti. If she didn’t live in Haiti, would she be on a pile of trash?”
Her sister’s captor had asked for $100,000 in ransom, Enette said. She told him she couldn’t afford it and negotiated down to the equivalent of roughly $300 U.S. But she and her father were poor and needed time to raise the money, she recounted to journalists.
“I said, “I’m going to do all I can to bring you the money.’ I said, ‘Please show me mercy,’ ” Enette Sincère said, offering to have reporters hear her voice notes pleading for her little sister’s life. “Then he called me to say that he would not wait for Monday because ‘We don’t have any place to hold people.’ ”
In the early morning of Nov. 1, Evelyne Sincère’s captor called. He told Enette where to find her abandoned body.
In her last year of high school at Lycée Jacques Roumain, Evelyne Sincère had just completed her final exams and was awaiting the results when she was killed. She was 22, an age that suggests that, like so many youth in a poverty-stricken Haiti, she had faced hardships that prevented her from graduating on time. With her short hair in twists, big brown eyes and a child-like innocence, she could have been anyone’s child, activists assert.
“We’ve been living this phenomenon of kidnappings for 20 years. But it’s like what they say, ‘A picture speaks a thousand words,’ “ said Mondestin. “We’ve heard about people being kidnapped, children who were kidnapped and killed after their families weren’t able to assemble the ransom, but we never saw the photos of the children. Even though we knew it to be true, it was like the news was rumor.”
But Sincère’s was different.
“The fact that we saw the photo of Evelyne on the side of the road, we saw the photo of her in her school uniform, we saw her with her friends participating in school activities, and given what we know about the sacrifice of Haitian families to send their children to school, and how we know finishing school is such a fight,” Mondestin said, trying to explain the reaction that has ensued. “It is not just Evelyne who they took control of. It was all of Haiti.”
Last week, Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste quoted a police source that the main suspect in Sincère’s murder was in custody. The man, Obed “Kiki” Joseph, 24, was turned into police at the Portail Saint-Joseph substation by a group of heavily armed men, the paper reported.
In a video circulated on social media, the notorious leader of a recently created gang federation, Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, announced that he had captured Joseph. An ex-cop, Chérizier is implicated in multiple massacres and is wanted by Haiti National Police.
Human rights activist Rosy Auguste Ducena, with the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, said Joseph, described in media reports as Sincère’s boyfriend, is a member of a gang affiliated with Chérizier’s G-9 and Family and Allies federation.
“On November 4 in the morning, around 11 a..m., there was a meeting among different gang leaders and they decided they would turn over Obed Joseph,” Ducena said. “Obed participated in the meeting with Barbecue and it was after the meeting, he made the video with Obed.”
Police Spokesman Michel-Ange Louis Jeune did not respond to a Miami Herald request to confirm if indeed the country’s most wanted gang leader had indeed detained the murder suspect, and what the relationship is between the two. On Monday, police reported they had arrested three additional suspects in connection to Sincère’s abduction and killing. One of them, Evald Domerchant, 27, admitted to suffocating her with a pillow a few minutes after giving her a lethal product, the police press release said.
Haiti’s sputtering social justice movement
Every movement needs a symbol. And some in Haiti’s sputtering grassroots movement against corruption and insecurity are hoping this death will be the tipping point. But the focus has not turned to the government but to Haiti’s struggling arts community.
Considered influencers because of their wide social media reach and following, they are being accused of ignoring their social responsibility in the fight for justice. Online, musicians and artists have been subjected to heavy criticism and pressure to take a public stance, with some even citing names of those who didn’t immediately speak out.
“At first glance, it is completely unfair because artists have been contributing to the fight for progress. I am not saying change, but progress,” said Fabrice Rouzier, a producer and founder of the popular music group Mizik Mizik.
But Rouzier, 53, also understands where the anger comes from.
“Regardless of whether you’re a musician or belong to any sector of society, this is unacceptable,” he said of the killing. “This is like a collection of crimes that has been occurring for the past two years and none of them have been solved, and there is a growing sense that they are not solved because there’s some kind of protection from the authorities. This is what’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for the majority of the population but it’s also frustrating for the artists too. Artists are human also and they are affected by this also.”
But there is a fine line between pushing artists to speak out, and bullying, say critics.
Haitian artists are divided about whether the criticism they have received is warranted. Some cite the public backlash Barikad Crew rapper Izolan and singer Joseph “T-Joe” Zenny received after leading thousands in an anti-government protest in the streets of Port-au-Prince last October as the repercussions they can face for reacting to political events in an increasingly intolerant society.
But some note that the industry has opened itself up to the criticism because some Haitian musicians have been increasingly using their art to either obtain political power or align themselves with the powerful. The most famous of them is former President Michel Martelly, who performs under the moniker “Sweet Micky.”
“With the artists starting to take political positions, becoming president, senators, deputies, they sort of in my mind did a disservice to the artist community because the messages they had when they were just civilians was just completely forgotten when they became officials,” Rouzier said. “It’s true, some of these artists have voiced their opinions and have been taking sides. And on some occasions, let’s not be shy about it, they have been on payrolls from some of these political figures.
“But at the same time, you cannot put all of the artists in the same box,” he added.
Darline Desca, who like Rutshelle Guillaume, was also attacked on social media after she failed to immediately react to Sincère’s killing, said the public places an unusually high burden on artists. They forget, she said, that artists are not immune from the mounting criminality.
“They don’t think about the fact that we are exposed, going from city to city to perform. They don’t think about the fact that our lives are endangered. They only think, ‘Oh, you’re making money,’ ” said Desca. “We don’t have any guarantees when we take the road to go to Jacmel or to Jeremie. Every place has armed groups that can be deployed at any moment along the route or in the cities.”
Desca said while she has no problem joining a genuine call for Haitian authorities to assume their responsibilities, the people demanding artists stop performing as an act of solidarity forget that she and other musicians are also working like them when they are at their jobs tweeting out their demands.
The public forgets, said Desca, who has 825,000 Instagram followers, that “there are people who they pay [with taxpayer] dollars to take on the responsibility” for them.
Still on Friday, to show support to Sincère’s family, Desca did cancel a performance she had scheduled later that night with the konpa group Kreyol La in Port-au-Prince. She did it, she said, not because she was pressured to do so by social media but because she is a mother raising a child.
That morning, instead of rehearsing, she went to the memorial event organized by Domingue and Philemon. Dressed in black, she laid flowers and lit a candle.
“I never want to imagine something like this happening to my child,” Desca said. “Before I am an artist, before I am a singer, I am a person. I am a human being with a heart, with blood running through my veins.”