May 20, 2024

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Haitians struggle to survive amid gang violence in the capital

Haitians struggle 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 containing several Haitian gourde notes (about 7 US cents).

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

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

“Every day I wake up and find a body,” said Noon Karem Manon, 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 barriers. Others speed when driving near gang-controlled areas. The few who can afford it are stockpiling water, food, money and medicine, supplies that 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 imprisoned, and have nowhere to go,” Philippe Branchat, head of the International Organization for Migration in Haiti, said in a recent statement. “The capital is surrounded by armed groups and danger. “It's a city under siege.”

Phones often ring with reports of shootings, kidnappings and fatal shootings, and some supermarkets have so many armed guards that they resemble small police stations.

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

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

“Everyone is under pressure,” said Isidore Gideon, a 38-year-old musician. “After escaping from prison, people no longer trust anyone. The state has no control.”

The gangs, which control about 80% of the city of Port-au-Prince, launched coordinated attacks on February 29 against the state's vital infrastructure: burning police stations, shooting up the airport, and storming Haiti's two largest prisons, freeing more than 4,000 prisoners.

At the time, Prime Minister Ariel Henry was visiting Kenya to press for the deployment of a UN-backed police force. Henry is still unable to return to Haiti, and the transitional presidential council charged with choosing the country's next prime minister and cabinet could be sworn in as soon as this week. Henry pledged to step down once a new leader was appointed.

Few believe this will end the crisis. And it's not just gangs that are unleashing violence: Haitians have adopted a self-defense movement known as “bois kali,” which has resulted in the deaths of several hundred suspected gang members or their associates.

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

More than 95,000 people have fled Port-au-Prince in just one month, after gangs looted communities, burned homes and killed people in areas controlled by their rivals.

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Those fleeing by bus to Haiti's southern and northern regions risk being gang-raped or killed as they pass through gang-controlled areas where gunmen have opened fire.

The violence in the capital caused the displacement of about 160,000 people, according to the International Organization for Migration.

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

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

“We looked over and over to see when we could escape,” he recalls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even students are entering the job market as the crisis worsens poverty across Haiti.

Solly, a 10th grader whose school closed nearly two months ago, stood on a corner in the Pétionville community where he sold gasoline he bought on the black market.

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

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

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

Last week, the European Union announced the establishment of a humanitarian air bridge from the Central American state of Panama to Haiti. Five flights landed in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, home to Haiti's only functioning airport, carrying 62 tons of medicine, water, emergency shelter equipment and other essential supplies.

But there is no guarantee that these items will reach those who need them most. Many Haitians remain trapped in their homes, unable to buy or search for food amid the bullets.

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

However, people find ways to survive.

Back in the neighborhood where residents had erected a metal barricade, sparks flew as one man cut metal while others shoveled and mixed cement. They are very advanced and hope to finish the project soon.

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