Haiti’s Gang Violence Keeps a Population Captive

  • Posted on: 22 February 2023
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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The New Humanitarian

By Evens Mary and Paula Depraz-Dobias

February 21, 2022

Less than two years after Haiti’s president was assassinated in his home, a stranglehold of gang violence has made life for millions of residents all but impossible as national security forces struggle to contain it. Hunger levels and humanitarian needs are rising. But some 60% of the capital, Port-au-Prince, as well as humanitarian access roads to areas further afield, are reportedly controlled by the armed groups. Residents and aid workers say this is keeping populations captive – unable to access food, medical care, and other essential services. The country has no more elected officials, after the terms of 10 remaining elected senators expired in January.

After visiting Haiti this month, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said the international community needed to “urgently consider” sending a “specialised armed force”, as requested by the government, to help a population confronted by a “living nightmare of gang violence”. Canada announced on 16 February it was stationing two warships off the Haitian coast to conduct “surveillance” and to “assist the Haitian national police in their efforts to control gang activity”. The Jamaican government has also previously expressed its willingness to participate in an international force, as requested by Port-au-Prince.

But growing discussions of international involvement to address the gang violence are complicated by Haiti’s disruptive colonial legacy. For residents in gang-controlled neighbourhoods, the relationship with international forces in the country has been a complex one.

Ovila Thimot, a 29-year-old street vendor in Cité Soleil, a densely populated impoverished commune gripped by the gang violence, told Geneva Solutions that in spite of having been raped by a soldier who was a UN peacekeeper sent in following a massive 2010 earthquake, things were better than they are now. “I’m not a big fan of the United Nations, but the country was stable,” she said. “We did not have this gang violence going on. A lot of people are scared to talk, but the people in Cité Soleil need a break. We just want to live life like everyone else, by providing for our kids, and giving them better opportunities.” “It would be best if the UN sent MINUSTAH back here so people can go on with their lives freely,” she added, referring to the acronym of the international peacekeeping mission that exited the country in 2017. A 2019 study said sexual exploitation and abuse by the peacekeepers had left women and under-aged girls impregnated.

Haiti is among the world’s most vulnerable countries to disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes, such as the one that shook the southwest a few months after President Jovenel Moïse’s July 2021 assassination. Since 2021, gangs have moved from controlling not only critical southern roads to quake-hit areas, but also holding sway over northbound routes, Christian Cricboom, ​​head of the Haiti office for the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA, told Geneva Solutions.

“The situation has become more and more complicated. There are days when it is really impossible to operate, and difficult to get around,” said Cricboom, who coordinates the distribution of UN aid within the country. According to the UN, some 65% of Cité Soleil’s population of at least 300,000 people suffer from high levels of food insecurity, including 5% who need urgent humanitarian assistance. Nationwide, some 4.7 million of Haiti’s roughly 11.5 million residents are threatened with acute hunger, including 2.4 million children. 

Alexandre Marcou of Médecins Sans Frontières in Haiti described how neighbourhoods in Cité Soleil, such as Brooklyn, have become “landlocked” by surrounding gangs, forcing patients who need urgent medical care to risk their lives to find assistance. In late 2022, for example, a shortage of fuel worsened the sanitary situation in vulnerable neighbourhoods, with water trucks unable to access areas as uncollected garbage obstructed roads. Cholera spread and many health facilities closed in part as a result of fuel price hikes. “Life is very hard now, with gang violence and women being raped, and too many people are dying. There's no school; no hospital. We don’t even have water to shower or to drink.”

One patient, who had gone to an MSF clinic in Cité Soleil that did not have a maternity ward, died in an ambulance as it drove from one closed hospital to another in search of care. “These sort of things happen every day,” Marcou said. The restrictions keep residents like Thimot locked in their neighbourhoods, with basic necessities even harder to reach. “If you're from the lower part of Cité Soleil, you can't go to the upper level because of different gangs,” she said. “I get up every day to try to earn a living to feed my 11-year-old son,” she continued, speaking about her child who was born after the abuse she endured. “Life is very hard now, with gang violence and women being raped, and too many people are dying. There's no school; no hospital. We don’t even have water to shower or to drink.”

Jose Ulysse, founder of the Centre Hospitalier de Fontaine, a hospital in Cité Soleil, takes a mixed view of what the international community’s years of involvement in Haiti have achieved. He told Geneva Solutions that while not much has been achieved “on the political side” by the UN, including through the 13-year-long deployment of MINUSTAH, the global organisation has contributed to health and education in the country. “My vision is to have a safe environment and better financial opportunities so our young men and women would not leave the country in search of a better life in other countries.”

But Ulysse said the responsibility for the current quagmire is a shared one. “I do not believe the international community takes us seriously, because we are the gravediggers of our own nation,” he said. The hospital partners with international NGOs and has received support from UNICEF; the UN’s migration agency, IOM; and the US Red Cross, Ullyse said.  Meanwhile, Jeanty Fils Exalus, communications director in Haiti’s health ministry, told Geneva Solutions that while his department is receiving international support, better education is needed.  “My vision is to have a safe environment and better financial opportunities so our young men and women would not leave the country in search of a better life in other countries,” he said. 

Since 2021, Haitians have been one of the top nationalities embarking on dangerous migration routes to the United States. According to IOM, the number of internally displaced Haitians rose to 113,000 by August 2022, mostly due to a large spike of those forced from their homes by gang violence in the capital. In a recent survey by an alliance of private sector groups, more than 70% of respondents in Haiti said they felt that the national police was incapable of resolving the crisis of gang violence on their own, while 69% were favourable to an international force.

OCHA’s Cricboom said the priority now is to re-establish a secure environment, allowing Haitians to recover and move forward with their lives. “Today, the situation is so catastrophic for Haitians that they think first about their survival,” Cricboom said. “Their first concern is to be able to work, to eat and to have some resources. Insecurity is the number one issue.” Cité Soleil resident Thimot, whose son is a living reminder of past interventions, said she feels forgotten: “People don't care about people from Cité Soleil,” she said. “You should come and see the situations we're in.”

A version of this article was first published in Geneva Solutions. Adapted for The New Humanitarian by Irwin Loy.

Photo Credit: The New Humanitarianhttps://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article272518750.html


Why a CNN journalist, a renowned chef and a Palm Beach resident are teaming up for HaitiBY



It was 2019 and Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, the only medical option available to hundreds of thousands of people along Haiti’s rural Artibonite River Valley, had just converted to solar power, expanded its 24-hour operations and implemented a surveillance program for mosquito-borne diseases and family planning. All of it was costly. After years of being self-funded thanks to the efforts of its founders six decades earlier, the hospital, which sits on a 120-acre campus with its own solar power and water treatment plants, was in the red and cash reserves were running out. “The hospital was facing a huge challenge,” recalls Jean Marc de Matteis, 50. “It was transitioning from the era of being self-funded ... and the board was facing tough decisions.”

On the table: scaling back medical services or closing altogether. Then de Matteis, whose wife, Verena, sat on the board, raised his hand. The Haitian-born professional thought that perhaps with his 20 years of experience in healthcare and commercial enterprises he could engineer a turnaround as the hospital’s next chief executive officer. This was before widespread fuel shortages spurred a countrywide shutdown in July, blocking de Matteis and outsiders from accessing the hospital; before 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic made travel and in-person meetings almost impossible, and the world’s attention turned to finding personal protective equipment for local health facilities. And it was before Haiti’s deepening political turmoil took a spiraling downturn. “Throw in a presidential assassination and then the earthquake,” de Matteis said. “And then of course now this situation, which is worse than everything combined — what we are going through in Haiti now.”

Jean Marc de Matteis is the current chief executive officer of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer. The Haitian-born professional will be honored in South Florida for his leadership of the hospital, which continues to provide care in central Haiti despite gang violence forcing it to suspend some services in February 2023. Courtesy of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Despite the challenges, de Matteis managed to keep Hôpital Albert Schweitzer afloat and open — even though last month armed gangs forced him to suspend regular operations and implement an emergency plan where the hospital only accepts life-threatening emergencies. “I was able to go in there and get some efficient management going and reduce our expenses considerably and almost double our impact,” said de Matteis, who replaced former CEO Louis Martin in June 2019. “We’ve expanded our community health programs, we reestablished our mobile clinics and established an HIV clinic, which we did not have before. So I am really proud.” More recent efforts included vaccinating 20,000-plus people against COVID-19, producing 20 million-plus liters of oxygen and spearheading relief efforts in the south of Haiti after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the cities of Les Cayes and Jeremie in August 2021.

In addition to bringing in World Central Kitchen and its founder, chef José Andrés, to provide thousands of hot meals to quake survivors, de Matteis and the hospital coordinated with Haiti Air Ambulance, which was part of a triage at the airport. “We’re stepping in and serving where we see a void,” he said. Disney outmaneuvered DeSantis’ new governing board, but a legal fight is brewing As lawmakers convened in a special session in February to pass the bill, Disney executed its plan with precision and silence. Legislature on verge of changing death penalty requirement to 8 of 12 jury votes “I think that the Parkland trial really exposed some of the problems with unanimity..” — bill sponsor Sen. Blaise Ingoglia Readily available energy technology could be behind Havana Syndrome, declassified report says “Parametric acoustic arrays — also referred to as directional loudspeakers or acoustic lasers — are the most plausible technology.”

De Matteis’ leadership will be lauded Friday at the Sailfish Club of Florida in Palm Beach. A fundraiser for the hospital, the White Hot Night annual benefit is spearheaded by Palm Beach resident Louise Stephaich, whose uncle and aunt, Larry and Gwen Mellon, founded Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti, 67 years ago. Stephaich, 93, who once traveled to Haiti amid food riots to go check on the care being given, said the benefit isn’t just about raising funds for the hospital in a time of need. It is also about bringing desperately needed attention to Haiti, where medical facilities and professionals are increasingly becoming casualties in the escalating armed gang violence. “I want people to be aware of what’s going on in Haiti,” she said. “Hopefully they will talk to people in Washington. With Ukraine going on, we don’t see that much about Haiti.” 

Despite scaling back regular operations, the hospital has remained busy. The pediatric ward is full, and surgeries are ongoing, de Matteis said, taking place “under war-like conditions.” “We’ve treated more gunshot victims in three weeks than we did for all of last year,” he said. So far, supplies are still coming in, though every day is a game of chance and tactical maneuvering to get supplies, first out of the port, and then onto the road through gang-controlled roads unnoticed. 

“There is no food getting out anywhere,” said de Matteis, deeply worried about the Artibonite, the country’s breadbasket. “All of the solutions that are being proposed, $100 million for this and that, 14 months ago that would have had a chance, but today, there is nothing to reinforce.” The co-chairs of Friday’s fundraiser are CNN’s Anderson Cooper and author Mitch Albom, along with Andrés, as well as Stephaich and Verena de Matteis. Albom, a journalist and philanthropist who runs an orphanage in Haiti and still travels there regularly, said he knows firsthand the stress under which hospitals are operating. Over the last six weeks, staff had to run all over Port-au-Prince on a Sunday looking for medication to stop a seizure after a hospital didn’t have it to treat one of his kids. Another facility discharged another one of his kids despite him being diagnosed with tuberculosis because the hospital said it had to shut down due to the gang violence preventing staff from getting to work.

“I think it’s hard for any American mind that hasn’t been to Haiti to really comprehend what’s gong on there in hospitals or anything else for that matter. It’s just so far out of our realm of thinking,” he said. “It’s the worst thing you can imagine and then another 10% beyond that. When it comes to hospitals, what more vital cog of society can there be? You would think maybe the gangs would leave them alone. It’s just not true.” People are being forced to take their safety into their own hands, said Albom, in order to get to and from work and just to save someone’s life. Stephaich’s uncle, Larry Mellon, was a rancher when someone dropped a copy of a magazine at his doorstep one day. On the cover was a photo of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and medical missionary whose humanitarian work included building a hospital in Africa. Mellon and Schweitzer corresponded, and the latter inspired him to quit ranching and become a doctor, even though Mellon at the time only had one year of undergraduate studies, Stephaich recalled.

Eventually, Mellon and his wife, Gwen, who had wanted to be a missionary, settled on Haiti after traveling the hemisphere looking for a place to build their own hospital. In Deschapelles, they found the campus of a defunct fruit company, which had a lot of buildings, and were given the land by the government on the condition that they make it a hospital. Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in central Haiti has had to suspend regular services due to kidnappings and violent gangs. But the hospital’s pediatric wards are full and new patients are increasingly gunshot victims.

During his time at the hospital, which he named in honor of his friend and inspiration, Larry Mellon was known for walking around with a pith helmet, hence the name Le Grand Chapeau Award for Philanthropy and Service that de Matteis will receive. Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in central Haiti has had to suspend regular services due to kidnappings and violent gangs. But the hospital’s pediatric wards are full and new patients include gunshot victims. Outside of Haiti, the hospital is known for its treatment of high-risk pregnancies. Courtesy of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Like Stephaich, de Matteis wants to keep Friday’s focus on Haiti and the professionals providing day-to-day care. People like Dr. Jean William “Bill” Pape, who runs the Gheskio medical clinics, and University Hospital of Mirebalais’ Loune Viard and Didi Bertrand Farmer, widow of the late Dr. Paul Farmer, who also focused on bringing healthcare to central Haiti. “The worse the humanitarian crisis gets the more hospitals and our services are needed,” de Matteis said. “Whatever the situation is in Haiti ... the 2,800 women with high risk pregnancies that give birth every year and the 800 Caesarean sections that we do every year are needed more than even when people are suffering more. “At the end of the day, we are alleviating suffering,” de Matteis added. “And that’s always a positive thing.”

This story was originally published March 30, 2023, 6:47 PM. JACQUELINE CHARLES 305-376-2616 Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

Read more at: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/artic...

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