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 were congregating Friday in the historic northern port city of Cap-Haitien for Moise’s funeral. Once he is laid to rest in his home region, expect political jockeying to recommence with vigor, with observers 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 have far more pressing issues on their minds.
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. CNN is not using the last names of victims for safety reasons. “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.”
More than half of the country’s population lives under the poverty line.
‘We have to win the fight against the insecurity’
The stunning assassination of Moise — for which at least 24 police officers and several heads of Haitian security forces are being investigated — has hardly inspired confidence in the remaining government’s ability to address the security needs of so many others. Nor has it created any sense that curbing violence against the city’s poor is a political priority, as officials vie for influence in the power vacuum left by Moise and pursue a high-profile investigation into the killing.
In a press conference last week, Foreign Minister Claude Joseph — then acting Prime Minister — warned listeners that anyone seeking to impede the investigation would have to assassinate him first.
Standing alongside Haiti’s Police Chief Leon Charles, he said that the assailants had miscalculated the government’s response to the assassination: “The killers thought they could kill the president and force the rest of the government to flee,” he said.
The Haitian government’s response to atrocities committed against ordinary people has been somewhat less muscular, however.
Haiti’s police forces are often themselves the target of criminal violence. According to the Haiti-based Center for Human Rights Analysis and Research (CARDH), 29 police officers were killed between January 1 and June 21, including some who were brutally mutilated and burned. Four were kidnapped for ransom.
One officer who works in the same neighborhood where the president was assassinated and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press, told CNN that wearing police uniform was like “wearing a target” on his back, and that he is often shot at during routine patrols in the city.
Haiti’s new leader, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, acknowledged the rampant brutality during his inauguration speech this week, saying his new government “bows low” before Haiti’s victims of violence. He also vowed to strengthen Haitian security forces with the aim of ensuring peaceful elections. “Policeman of all ranks, members of the Haitian armed forces, to stop this crisis in our society, we have to win the fight against the insecurity. … I am going to reinforce the capacity of the armed forces to respond better to the crimes. Be up to your tasks. Follow the law as your guide.”
The proliferation of refugee encampments across the city testify to security forces’ current inability to address insecurity — and the government’s struggle to provide care for those who have been displaced.
One sports center that has been turned into a temporary shelter can now only be safely accessed via helicopter, according to aid workers, due to gang activity in the surrounding neighborhoods. And at a school that has been transformed into temporary shelter for some 200 disabled people whose homes were also burned down, it is nearly impossible to walk from one end of the building to the other without bumping into or stepping on someone.
“It is hot here, the people are laying on top of each other like sardines,” Philogene Jocelin, a coordinator and spokesperson for the disabled community, told CNN. “The government is not thinking about the disabled.”
Asked about Moise’s death, he responds bitterly, “Whether the president is there or not, it doesn’t matter. His presence did not help us; his absence is none of our business.”
While waves of arson have largely hit poorer, more densely populated neighborhoods, kidnappers have targeted poor and rich alike with abandon. According to CARDH, which tracks kidnappings, nearly 200 people were kidnapped in the month of June — compared to an estimated 91 in April, and 27 in March.
Kidnapping even operates as a bulk business, with several large groups of people kidnapped in the second half of May, CARDH says. Last week, 16 people were taken hostage from a bus operated by local company “Sans Souci” — which in French means “no worries.” They were later released that night, a Sans Souci spokesperson said.
One couple, husband and wife Chrisner and Merline, told CNN they were kidnapped in January in their Sunday finest, as they were exiting church. “At the end of the service we were on our way out, and there were some people standing outside already. When we saw them, we turned around to go back in through the open gate, but they rushed after us,” Chrisner told CNN.
“They told us if we don’t pay the ransom they will kill us. They said that our pictures will be taken while lying dead on a pile of garbage, and that our family will have to collect our dead bodies from the garbage dump,” his wife Merline added softly. The couple asked that CNN withhold their last names due to safety concerns.
They would spend five days as hostages, while their church raised money to pay the ransom — 600,000 Haitian gourdes, or around $6,300. The couple, a security guard and a cosmetics saleswoman, dismiss the idea that they will ever be able to pay back the sum to the community that raised it.
Several kidnapping victims and their families told CNN that they were still working to pay off debts, after borrowing money from friends, employers and even banks to pay ransoms. And even they are relatively lucky; some families never manage to scrape together the funds demanded.
In a case that has become notorious across the country even amid this year’s hundreds of kidnappings, a 5-year-old girl was reportedly found dead early this year with signs of strangulation.
Her mother, a peanut vendor, told Reuters she had been unable to come up with the equivalent of $4,000 for ransom.
‘The pressure on Washington to do something will become irresistible’
In the wake of Moise’s assassination, an unspoken concern of regional governments, including the United States, has been that political instability in Haiti could drive new flows of migrants toward their borders — what is often referred to in Washington as a migration “crisis.”
Former US Ambassador to Haiti James Foley warned this week in The Atlantic, “Should endemic chaos turn into complete anarchy, sending Haitians in large numbers onto rickety boats heading toward Florida, the pressure on Washington to do something will become irresistible.”
But crisis stalked Haitians for months before Moise’s death, and little protection has been offered against the deadly forces that push some to flee abroad. Last month, police in the nearby Turks and Caicos Islands intercepted a boat carrying 43 Haitians, and handed them over to immigration authorities for repatriation.
For Chrisner and Merline, the shadow of fear that lies over Port-au-Prince now has a clear and specific shape. They are now too afraid of being kidnapped again to return to work, leaving home only for church, which has become a lifeline for them.
Both would like to apply for asylum abroad, but the process of obtaining the necessary documents has been mired in bureaucracy.
Contemplating escaping Haiti, their faces show little hope. “The way things are, we cannot get a break,” Merline said. “We cannot leave the country and we cannot live in security inside of it.”
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Etant Dupain, Natalie Gallon and Matt Rivers in Port-au-Prince.