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 Jean-Dickens 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.”
Toussaint said her family is in touch with the FBI, which is helping with the case.
“To the gangs, I want to say, we want our family back. We are not rich over here,” Nikese Toussaint said.
A statement from the U.S. State Department said the agency was aware of reports of two U.S. citizens being kidnapped and was in regular contact with Haitian authorities.
The kidnappings are the latest to target U.S. citizens, although most victims are Haitian, ranging from wealthy business owners to humble street vendors. At least 101 kidnappings were reported in the first two weeks of March alone, with another 208 people killed in gang clashes during that period, according to the U.N.
The ongoing violence in Port-au-Prince and beyond also has displaced at least 160,000 people as warring gangs set fire to neighborhoods in their bid to control more territory.
More than a week has gone by since the Toussaints were kidnapped. Their family is trying to stay strong because the couple have a son who turns 2 on Tuesday.
“We’re trying to smile,” Nikese Toussaint said of their video calls with the boy. “We have to smile with him, and give him love, and at the same time we get a little smile (from him), and that’s when the pain gets a little harder.”