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Fear stalks Haitians as their murdered president is buried and gangs terrorize the capital

Port-au-Prince, Kidnapped from church, shot at during an evening commute, chased out of their homes as flames licked up the street.

Stories of abduction, lethal attack and indiscriminate destruction are endless in Haiti’s seaside city of Port-au-Prince, where everyone seems to know someone who barely made it out alive — and where many did not, in what rights organizations describe as a particularly dangerous year even before the assassination of former president Jovenel Moise drew the world’s attention.

Haiti’s elite congregated Friday in the historic northern port city of Cap-Haitien for Moise’s funeral. His widow, Martine, the former first lady who was wounded in the same July 7 attack that claimed her husband’s life, addressed mourners with a dark warning.

“The birds of prey are still running the streets, their bloody claws still looking for prey. They don’t even hide, they are here, they just watch us, listen to us, hoping to scare us. Their thirst for blood has not yet subsided,” she said, an apparent reference to her husband’s killers.

Several suspects in the ongoing assassination investigation remain on the loose, and a mastermind has not yet been identified.

With the former president laid to rest in his home region, expect the jockeying for power to recommence with vigor. Political observers will be eager to see if the recent alliance between two rival prime ministers will hold; whether the interim government will finally hold elections as hoped for by the international community; and if Haiti’s civil society coalition can finally unite to propose an alternative transitional government.

But in the capital city Port-au-Prince, many Haitian families are more focused on the circling of their own birds of prey.

Since June, more than 15,500 people in the city have had to flee their homes due to gang violence and rampant arson. City residents who manage to avoid direct exposure to violence are navigating skyrocketing inflation, frequent blackouts, and shortages of food and fuel, due in large part to gang activity choking off key delivery routes.

And while the wealthy may still live comfortably in high-walled compounds on the city’s loftier slopes, no amount of money can guarantee safety from the soaring threat of kidnapping.

This has been a summer of fire in Port-au-Prince. Hundreds of homes across the city have been burned to the ground by gangs — and even, some victims insist, by police battling the gangs. Marie Michele Vernier, press secretary for Haiti’s National Police, says such accusations “have not been verified,” adding that the police “could never conduct themselves that way.”

Yslande, 38, and her three children were forced to flee her home in the Delmas neighborhood in the middle of the night on June 4. “There were people shooting at each other in the streets. The bandits came and said, ‘You have to leave your home or you will die,'” Paul says.

Without time even to grab clothing, the family fled down the street to a bank parking lot in lower Delmas, where they spent the night. Some 400 families would end up there under similar circumstances, before ultimately relocating to the local church Eglise St. Yves, according to Chrisle Luca Napoléon, head of local children’s aid organization OCCEDH.

Paul and her family now live in a crowded, unfinished concrete-block building next to the church, where OCCEDH and UNICEF have set up rudimentary toilets and food for displaced families. There is no private space — in one room, holes in the walls serve as windows and dozens of people vie for space to sit or lie down. Aid workers warn of the risk of sexual violence and teen prostitution around such shelters.

“This is not comfortable or safe for my children,” says Marijou, a mother of four children, including a newborn, whose home was also set on fire.

“The building is not in good condition, I’m afraid if there is another earthquake there could be a lot of damage. Wind and rain comes through the building and the baby cries all the time,” the 30-year-old says.

But asked where she might go next, Marijou was at a loss. “I don’t know. I don’t know yet. We lost our house and everything we had. We lost everything. It depends on the authorities and the state.”

Gangs control over 60% of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, estimates Pierre Esperance, executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.

More than 200,000 city residents are effectively hostages in their own homes by geographic misfortune, cut off from basic services and transportation in gang-controlled areas where even the police dare not go.

Criminals’ grip on the capital has repercussions even beyond city limits; as Haiti’s main port, Port-au-Prince has become a chokepoint for imported food and fuel — not to mention recently arrived shipments of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Even those Haitians who live in the rest of the country are affected,” says Esperance, who blames the late president Moise for allowing gang activity to flourish. “We produce bananas, yams, avocados, sweet potatoes, yucca, and country people come to the nation’s capital to sell them. But today, people from the country cannot come (to Port-au-Prince), because of the insecurity issue; they cannot come because of the gangsters. That brings them into deeper poverty.”

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Thousands seek refuse from wave of violence Haiti’s capital city.

A bloody wave of shootings, arson and other criminal violence has engulfed parts of Port-au-Prince, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and trapping others within dangerous areas of the Haitian capital, aid agencies say.

Most recently, a series of killings on Tuesday night claimed the lives of radio journalist Diego Charles and activist Antoinette Duclair among others, according to a statement by Haiti’s government.

“The government vehemently condemns these abominable actions and the blind violence which sows trouble and mourning in every level of the Haitian population,” read the statement, which added that the country’s national police and justice ministry had been instructed to bring the killers to justice.

“These odious crimes and reprehensible actions cannot go unpunished in a democratic society,” it said.

Criminal activity and territorial disputes between an estimated 95 armed gangs are causing “widespread panic” in Port-au-Prince, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Armed groups have targeted local police and set fire to swathes of civilian homes as well as a camp populated by people with disabilities. The violence prompted an estimated 13,600 city residents to flee their homes in June alone — a massive increase from the 3,400 people displaced by gang activity in the previous nine months, according a report last week by the humanitarian agency.

Nathalie was one of the early victims, forced to flee with her baby earlier this year, after their home was set on fire during a battle between rival gangs, she said. She asked for her last name to be withdraw due to safety concerns.

Her husband had been killed while out buying groceries, the 27-year-old added, speaking to the media from a temporary encampment where she has been living for months. More than 230 other families are also living in the camp due to similar reasons, she said.

They burned down our house, which is why we had to find space in this camp. We were collateral damage in the gang fights between G9 and the other gangs who are looking to take over the neighborhood,” Nathalie said, referring to a federation of gangs led by infamous ex-police officer Jimmy Cherizier, who last week vowed before local media to carry out a “revolution” in the city.

Bruno Maes, UNICEF representative based in Port-au-Prince, told the media his agency had collected “hundreds” of testimonies from other women and children whose homes were also burned down by armed groups.

Fighting has prevented aid agencies from directly reaching many of the displaced families sheltering by the thousands in churches and community centers, Maes said. Others are dispersed across the city.

For now, aid is being funneled through local networks, but he warns that humanitarian workers will need better access as the peak of the Caribbean’s hurricane season approaches.

Insecurity is having a ripple effect on national supply chains, Maes also said. “Gun violence is taking control of more and more space,” he said. Criminal control of major transit arteries in the country’s biggest city — which is also its main port — are slowing food and fuel deliveries to other parts of the country — a serious threat in a population where the UN estimates 46 percent of people are already “food-insecure.”

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The chaos also threatens everyday access to medical treatment in the capital, as Covid-19 surges in Haiti. Doctors without Borders has cut back activities in parts of Port-au-Prince, citing recent episodes where medical staff were forced to shelter from stray bullets and armed individuals robbed ambulance drivers.

The US Embassy in Haiti has expressed concern over the violence and called for action from the Haitian government. “The United States urges the government of Haiti to protect its citizens by countering the proliferation of gangs and by holding the perpetrators of violence and their accomplices accountable,” it said in a statement released Wednesday.

But for now, Haiti’s leaders appear unable to contain the violence — a fact that Nathalie, the displaced mother, describes as unforgivable. It’s all happening under the government’s watch, she said. “No one came to our rescue despite days of gang fighting.”

The Prime Minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.