Haitians fight to survive amid gang violence in the capital

Haitians fight to survive amid gang violence in the capital
Haitians fight to survive amid gang violence in the capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — At dusk, a burly man shouts into a megaphone as a curious crowd gathers around him. Next to it is a small cardboard box with several 10 Haitian gourde bills (about 7 US cents).

“Everyone gives what they have!” the man shouts as he grabs the arms and hands of those entering a neighborhood in the capital of Port-au-Prince that is targeted by violent gangs.

The community recently voted to purchase a metal barricade and install it themselves to try to protect residents from the relentless violence that killed or injured more than 2,500 people in Haiti from January to March.

“Every day I wake up and find a dead body,” said Noune-Carme Manoune, an immigration agent.

Life in Port-au-Prince has become a game of survival, pushing Haitians to new limits as they try to stay safe and alive while gangs overwhelm the police and the government remains largely absent. Some install metal barricades. Others speed up when driving near gang-controlled areas. The few who can afford it are stockpiling water, food, money and medicine, supplies of which have dwindled since the main international airport closed in early March. The country’s largest seaport is largely paralyzed by looting gangs.

“People living in the capital are locked up, they have nowhere to go,” Philippe Branchat, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Haiti, said in a recent statement. “The capital is surrounded by armed groups and danger. “It is a city under siege.”

Phones frequently ring with alerts reporting gunshots, kidnappings and fatal shootings, and some supermarkets have so many armed guards that they resemble small police stations.

Gang attacks used to occur only in certain areas, but now they can happen anywhere and at any time. Staying indoors does not guarantee safety: a man playing with his daughter at home was shot in the back by a stray bullet. Others have been murdered.

Schools and gas stations are closed and fuel on the black market is sold for $9 a gallon, about three times the official price. Banks have banned customers from withdrawing more than $100 a day, and checks that once took three days to clear now take a month or more. Police officers have to wait weeks to receive their pay.

“Everyone is under stress,” said Isidore Gédéon, a 38-year-old musician. “After the prison break, people don’t trust anyone. The State does not have control.”

The gangs that dominate about 80% of Port-au-Prince launched coordinated attacks on February 29 against critical state infrastructure: They burned down police stations, shot up the airport and stormed Haiti’s two largest prisons and freed more than 4,000 inmates.

At the time, Prime Minister Ariel Henry was visiting Kenya to push for the deployment of a UN-backed police force. Henry remains unable to return to Haiti, and a transitional presidential council tasked with selecting the country’s next prime minister and cabinet could be sworn in as soon as this week. Henry has pledged to step down once a new leader is installed.

Few believe that this will end the crisis. It is not just gangs that unleash violence: Haitians have adopted a self-defense movement known as “bwa kale,” which has killed several hundred suspected gang members or their associates.

“There are certain communities I can’t go to because everyone is afraid of everyone,” Gédéon said. “You could be innocent and end up dead.”

More than 95,000 people have fled Port-au-Prince in just one month as gangs loot communities, burn homes and kill people in territories controlled by their rivals.

Those fleeing by bus to Haiti’s southern and northern regions risk gang rape or murder as they pass through gang-controlled areas where gunmen have opened fire.

Violence in the capital has left some 160,000 people homeless, according to the IOM.

“This is hell,” said producer and cameraman Nelson Langlois.

Langlois, his wife and three children spent two nights lying on the roof of their home while gangs ransacked the neighborhood.

“Over and over again we looked to see when we could escape,” he recalled.

Forced to separate due to lack of accommodation, Langlois lives in a voodoo temple and his wife and children are elsewhere in Port-au-Prince.

Like most people in the city, Langlois usually stays indoors. The days of playing pickup soccer on dusty roads and the nights of drinking Prestige beer in bars playing hip-hop, reggae or African music are long gone.

“It’s an open-air prison,” Langlois said.

The violence has also forced businesses, government agencies and schools to close, leaving many Haitians unemployed.

Manoune, the government immigration agent, said her income now comes from selling treated water because she has no job since deportations have stalled.

Meanwhile, Gédéon said that he no longer makes a living playing drums since bars and other meeting places are closed. He sells small plastic bags of water on the street and has become a self-employed handyman who installs fans and fixes appliances.

Even students are entering the workforce as the crisis deepens poverty across Haiti.

Sully, a 10th grader whose school closed almost two months ago, stood on a corner in the Pétion-Ville community where he sells gasoline he buys on the black market.

“You have to be careful,” explained Sully, who asked that his last name not be revealed for safety. “During the morning it is safer.”

He sells about five gallons a week, generating about $40 for his family, but he can’t afford to join his classmates who are learning remotely.

“Online classes are for people luckier than me, who have more money,” Sully said.

The European Union announced last week the creation of a humanitarian air bridge from the Central American country of Panama to Haiti. Five flights landed in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, home to Haiti’s only operating airport, with 62 tons of medicine, water, emergency shelter equipment and other essential supplies.

But there is no guarantee that the items will reach those who need them most. Many Haitians remain trapped in their homes without the ability to buy or search for food amidst the bullets.

Aid groups say nearly 2 million Haitians are on the brink of famine, more than 600,000 of them children.

However, people find ways to survive.

Back in the neighborhood where residents set up a metal barricade, sparks fly as one man cuts metal while others shovel and mix cement. They are very advanced and hope to finish the project soon.

Others are skeptical, citing reports of gangs jumping onto loaders and other heavy equipment to knock down police stations and, more recently, metal barricades.

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