Gangs strangle Haiti’s capital as deaths and kidnappings soar

By Evens Sanon and Dánica Coto | Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – It was around 6 a.m. when Venique Moïse opened the door to his home and saw dozens of people running around – their children in one hand and scarce belongings in the other – as the gunfire intensified.

Minutes later, she joined the crowd with her three children and fled their neighborhood in the Haitian capital as fires burned nearby, collapsing homes where hours later the bodies of nearly 200 men, women and children shot or mutilated with machetes by warring gangs have been found next to skulls. and the bones of the victims set on fire at the end of April.

“That Sunday, when the war started, I felt like I was going to die,” Moïse said.

The gangs clash and take over the territory of the capital Port-au-Prince with new intensity and brutality. The violence has horrified many who believe the country is rapidly unraveling as it tries to recover from the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the United Nations prepares to discuss the future of his presence. for a long time in Haiti.

Experts say the scale and duration of gang clashes, the power wielded by criminals and the amount of territory they control have reached levels never seen before.

The gangs forced schools, businesses and hospitals to close as they looted new neighborhoods, took over major roads linking the capital to the rest of the country and kidnapped victims daily, including eight Turkish citizens still held captive, according to the authorities.

The gangs are also recruiting more children than before, arming them with heavy weapons and forming temporary alliances with other gangs in a bid to seize more territory for economic and political gain before the general elections in the country. country, said Jaime Vigil Recinos of the United Nations police. commissioner in Haiti.

“It’s amazing,” he told The Associated Press, noting that gang fights are becoming protracted and ruthless affairs. “We are talking about something Haiti has never experienced before.”

At least 92 civilians and 96 suspected gang members were killed between April 24 and May 16, with 113 others injured, 12 missing and 49 kidnapped for ransom, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The office warned that the actual number of people killed “could be much higher”.

Gangs also gang-raped children as young as 10 and burned down at least a dozen homes, forcing some 9,000 people to flee and seek temporary shelter in closed churches, public parks and schools, said UN officials.

Haiti’s National Human Rights Network said some victims were beheaded while others were thrown into wells and latrines. The gangs posted photos of the gruesome scenes on social media to further terrorize people. The network said most of the women and girls were raped before they were killed.

“Armed violence has reached unimaginable and intolerable levels in Haiti,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a May 17 statement.

Bruno Maes, the UNICEF representative in Haiti, told the AP that a growing concern is the lack of access to basic things like water, food and medicine because people remain trapped in some areas as gangs continue to fight, noting that malnutrition is on the rise, affecting 1 in 5 children in the Cité Soleil neighborhood alone.

“We are really seeing a bottleneck in Port-au-Prince,” he said, adding that UNICEF has been forced to use a helicopter and now a boat to try to reach those most in need.

Hospital and clinic staff report they are under strain, with Doctors Without Borders noting they treated nearly 100 people for gunshot wounds from April 24 to May 7, forcing the aid group to reopen a clinic in Cité Soleil which he had closed in early April because of the violence.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry has remained largely silent amid escalating gang violence, while Frantz Elbé, Haiti’s new police chief, said dozens of gang members had been arrested and 94 others killed in clashes with police since he took control of the department six months ago. Nearly 5,000 suspects have been charged with crimes including murder and kidnapping, Elbé said.

“I will continue to hunt down criminals,” he promised at a May 9 press conference, adding that Haiti’s understaffed and underfunded police service of about 11,000 officers to a country of more than 11 million people received training and equipment. of the international community.

At least 48 murders have been reported in the Butte Boyer neighborhood, which Edna Noël Marie fled with her husband and three children when gunfire broke out in late April.

The 44-year-old sleeps on the concrete floor of a crowded shelter with no mattress in increasingly unsanitary conditions while her children stay with a friend.

“It’s not big enough to house all of us,” she said, adding that she feared gangs would recruit her two sons and rape her daughter. “These people have no remorse and society doesn’t care. … There is no civil protection. There are no authorities. The police are here today, and they will leave tomorrow.

About 1,700 schools have closed amid surging gang violence, leaving more than half a million children without an education, with some schools’ principals unable to keep paying gangs to keep students safe, the UN said. Efforts are underway to set up a dedicated FM radio station to broadcast the lessons, Maes said.

“It’s very sad for us that children who want to learn and teachers who want to teach can’t because they don’t feel safe,” he said.

Ongoing violence and kidnappings have prompted hundreds of Haitians to flee their country, a decision that is often deadly. At least 11 Haitians died and 36 others were rescued when their smugglers’ boat overturned near Puerto Rico this month. Dozens more have died at sea in recent months.

Another concern is the lack of housing not only for the approximately 9,000 families recently forced to flee their homes, but also for the approximately 20,000 others displaced last year who are still living in filthy and overcrowded government shelters. At the same time, the country is struggling to help around 20,000 Haitians whom US President Joe Biden’s administration has expelled in recent months amid heavy criticism.

As police try to contain the gang violence, AP reporters traveled to the Butte Boyer neighborhood, where the smell of charred homes and rotting bodies has spread over several city blocks. Dogs gnawed the remains of the victims.

Several walls and doors were scrawled with ‘400 Mawozo’, a testament to the presence of a gang suspected of kidnapping Turkish citizens in early May and 17 members of a US-based missionary group last year, demanding $1 million ransom and holding most for two months.

Nailed to a wooden post, the picture of a man killed in recent gang violence flapped in the wind. The sign below read: “Thank you to the government of my country”.

It was once a quiet neighborhood that Lucitha Gason, 48, knows she will never return to. She was preparing to go to church when the explosion of gunfire in late April forced her to abandon her home. She is staying at a closed school, but the owner recently demanded that she and dozens of other Haitians find another place to sleep.

Gason is now trying to figure out where to go since she cannot afford to leave the country.

“We cannot rely on the government. We cannot rely on organizations. They all make promises that don’t materialize,” she said. “Here in Haiti, you really have to rely on yourself and what you can do for yourself. There is nothing like what the country can do for you.

Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.