A team from France 24 in Spanish visited the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, before the gangs controlled the entire city. A writer, a street food vendor, a food importer, some deportees and other citizens looking for a passport to emigrate; They tell how they have weathered the crises in this country, in the midst of hunger, insecurity and the control of armed gangs.
“Les bandits ont le champ libre”. “The bandits have a free field”, headlined ‘Le Nouvelliste’ on its front page of March 3, 2023, the oldest newspaper in Haiti and one of the ones that still works in the Caribbean country. The article refers to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report published that same day, which presents a diagnosis of what millions of Haitians suffer due to the control of armed gangs: the increase in urban violence. “Haiti is in the grip of multiple, interrelated and cascading crises,” reads the cover.
Walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince is a latent risk. On many roads, some main routes, there are illegal outposts controlled by gangs that impose, de facto, their law. Added to the devastated panorama are the kidnappings that are counted as a daily weather report in the local media and the growing migration, which is only slowed down by the difficulty of obtaining a passport.
Haiti is in the grip of multiple, interrelated and cascading crises
Dadi is a food vendor at a street stall, her day is spent among pots full of willow pois (a typical bean-based dish from the region, which is accompanied with rice), chicken (the cheapest protein that can be obtained since it does not come from abroad) and a decimated clientele, which due to the increase in prices, reflected in an increase of inflation of 47% in 2022, he consumes less and less.
“There is always loss every day. Every day I invest and spend money, but there is no financial income and this is because food is expensive, ”she says. This mother of two says that “this is the cheapest thing you can prepare” and “few can afford it,” says Dadi.
Food is scarce and drinking water is a vital resource that a large part of the population lacks, especially those who are besieged in the neighborhoods that are more controlled by gangs.
In October 2022, The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warned of the serious humanitarian crisis that more than 4.7 million Haitians live and that the France 24 team was able to verify.
“Seeing thin people, people begging, and seeing this as a constant in the population is something that has an impact,” says Sandrine Exil, a France 24 journalist and member of the team that visited Port-au-Prince and in charge of the pre-production of the report.
Jesumène René, mother of three infants, works as a domestic worker. Her income is not enough, but she has enough to pay for a 16-square-meter room, in a neighborhood where the influence of gangs is not yet evident.
She also acknowledges that “when (her children) grow up, I don’t know if they want to leave the country, I don’t know… I don’t see what their future could be.”
She is part of the more than 150,000 Haitians who, according to Human Rights Watch, have had to move around the country due to urban violence. Also, according to International Focus Group The influence of the gangs has been increasing since 2021, even before the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
The country has changed drastically. Getting around without the help of an armored car and private security is impossible both for the few businessmen who remain in the Caribbean enclave, and for the team of journalists who visited this city. On several occasions, the group witnessed the so-called ‘check points’ or control posts established by criminal gangs.
Jean-Marc Nouaisser is Franco-Moroccan, he imports food and to continue living in the capital, he has had to build a fort, with heavily armed men at each gate. Also, the warehouses where he houses fish (of which we reserve the location) and all kinds of food, are protected by high walls, barbed wire and a strict protocol to avoid assailants. “We have maybe 30 trucks, but we have problems with them. The police must escort them, ”he says.
This merchant decided to move to his warehouses to reduce the risk of moving around the city. Similar precautions to this are taken by hotels that close their doors before night and have built doors, screens and concrete walls around their facilities, in order to avoid assaults and prevent kidnappings.
During the filming of this report, the first week of February, the France 24 team in Spanish verified that the gangs controlled between 40% and 60% of the territory of Port-au-Prince.
Almost a month later, control of the gangs is plenary over the capital. “Today, the capital of Haiti is 100% controlled by armed gangs,” Rosy Ducéna, from the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, told RFI.
This increase in violence, according to Ducéna, seeks to “increase the pressure on the international community to promote international intervention.”
In November 2022, a team from the France 24 Observers program documented that more than 150 gangs were active in the country and made agreements with each other to unite and increase their operational capacity, in the midst of the turf war that is being waged. .
“I was in Haiti 11 years ago, after the earthquake, after the cholera outbreak, and it was already a difficult mission due to the lack of infrastructure. I thought I was seeing a country at the most critical moment in its history, but almost a decade later, I found something worse. I had freedom, I didn’t have an escort, I went to neighborhoods like Cité Soleil and Martissant, now it’s unthinkable. There is no longer a presidential palace. It is a metaphor for what has happened in this time,” says Margot Loizillon, editor-in-chief of France 24 in Spanish and member of the team that visited the Haitian capital and in charge of the camera.
Benoit Vasseur, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Haiti, stresses that his job is becoming increasingly difficult. This medical mission has been on the island for three decades, it focuses on the medical support of the most disadvantaged population and “we benefit from a great acceptance of the population, we cure everyone. The community where we work, (they) are the guarantors of our safety and respect for our activity”.
Vasseur acknowledges that “a good number of our patients are victims of violence with white weapons, or also by bullet wounds.”
MSF medical centers, located in the most disadvantaged parts of the Caribbean capital, have seen violent incidents since 2022.
“On August 15, 2022, a patient was extracted from one of the hospitals that we manage in the Carrefour neighborhood. He was coldly executed as he left the hospital.. This was repeated in the last week of January (of 2023).” The head of the mission points out that the health system is in crisis, both due to the lack of economic resources and the structures destroyed after the 2021 earthquake. Likewise, the human exodus of health talent “impoverishes the team of doctors and of specialists available in the country” adds Benoit Vasseur.
When they grow up, I don’t know if they want to leave the country, I don’t know… I don’t see what their future could be
At the hospital Tabarre reflects the battered social situation of the country. Stories of misfortune and sadness swarm among the crowded corridors of people with pain, fractures, burns and some deliveries.
There, a patient with immobilized legs, tells how he ended up with both legs fractured: “Two bandits began to question me, one of them told me ‘I’m going to shoot you’ and the other told me to climb a wall that was in front of me. So I decided to climb the wall, it was easy, as soon as I reached the top, one of them told me ‘if you don’t want me to shoot you, jump to the other side.’ When I jumped I fell into an unimaginable abyss. I heard my legs crack and I couldn’t walk. I started to crawl, crawl, crawl. Until a man on a motorcycle helped me”, says this Haitian who lived in Brazil and refused a work visa to return to his country.
“Today, you don’t want to want to be in this country,” he admits.
In other areas of society, such as culture, the crisis has also hit hard. Lyonel Trouillot, novelist and poet, hosts a weekly radio show. This is one of the few spaces that still remain for culture in the country.
“It is essential to have this type of broadcast because this is where the Haitian discourse of what we want to do with this country actually circulates. We have this government, which is hard to call a government, which has no legitimacy and without being able to convince anyone in Haiti, needs a foreign force to legitimize its existence”, says Trouillot.
At the end of this trip, the team of journalists witnessed the faces of the deportees who arrive at the Port-au-Prince international airport twice a week, and the contrast with the long lines in front of the Migration building of Haitians desperate to process a passport.
Most prefer not to speak to the camera, they don’t feel comfortable. “They have come to show our misfortune,” shouts a man while he covers his face. These lines are getting longer since President Joe Biden decided to include Haitians in a expedited immigration process so that they can reach North America by “safe routes”.
Solutions are not in sight. An international military intervention seems to generate resistance among the local population, recalling the results of previous military missions in the country.
A local solution is what many are clamoring for as an answer. However, the country’s democratic political system is increasingly weak, given the lack of legislative and presidential elections in the short term.
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