(AFP) — At a training facility outside the Haitian capital, where young female football players are living under a coronavirus lockdown, the atmosphere is heavy, following allegations that the head of the sport’s national federation raped several teenage girls there.
But at the academy—once a ranch owned by Haiti’s former strongman Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier — players and staff are largely on Yves Jean-Bart’s side, calling him a father figure.
“President Jean-Bart is like a father to us all…he loves and respects everyone,” says Yvette Felix, a 38-year-old former national team captain who has worked as a coach since 2006.
The claims stem from a report by The Guardian, in which the alleged victims and their relatives said the 73-year-old Jean-Bart had raped or sexually assaulted them over the past five years.
Several alleged victims —who said they were pressured to keep quiet — told the British newspaper that at least two minors were forced to have abortions to cover up rapes.
Haitian police have launched a probe into the allegations, first revealed late last month, and a judge has already summoned several federation employees to answer questions.
Two women’s advocacy groups, SOFA and Kay Fanm, have issued a statement in support of the alleged victims.
“The president treats us like his own children. I don’t think that all that really happened. I don’t believe it,” said one 12-year-old female player, who has lived at the facility since December.
In the wider sports community in the Port-au-Prince area, the view of Jean-Bart as a father figure spans generations.
He has led the country’s football federation for two decades. His re-election in February for a sixth term was a mere formality. He ran unopposed.
Reached by telephone, Jean-Bart categorically denied all allegations against him.
“This is an insult to the nation,” he said, adding that he planned to file a complaint in Paris against the French journalist who co-wrote the Guardian piece.
“He defamed our country. He left a stain on our flag. He insulted the girls.”
Football is revered in Haiti, and has given the impoverished Caribbean nation a few moments in the international spotlight.
For some, attacking Jean-Bart —often referred to by his nickname, “Dadou” — is akin to attacking the country as a whole.
After the Guardian article was published, several players organised a protest at the training camp. Photos of them circulated on the Internet.
“We made signs to say ‘Stop sullying our image, stop sullying the image of the nation’,” explained Kerly Theus, the 21-year-old goalkeeper for the women’s national team.