Haiti fights for its life in the streets: Reporter's notebook

At least 80% of Haiti's capital city is controlled by gangs.

June 2, 2023, 6:03 AM

The tap on the shoulder comes just as we get to the border of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world right now.

That's the signal it's time to stop filming. The armed group controlling this area doesn't want us to record their fighting positions, their defensive barricades or their soldiers with American-made rifles.

That's how bad things are in Cite Soleil, a sprawling area in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that's home to hundreds of thousands of people.

Armed groups are fighting over that territory just as they're fighting over nearly the entire country. At least 80% of Haiti's capital city is controlled by gangs and there is no end in sight as the government is in full retreat.

It has led to a sprawling crisis marked by a massive spike in kidnappings, shootings and death.

For example, the United Nations said there have been more civilians killed in Haiti than in Ukraine in the first four months of 2023.

PHOTO: Port-au-Prince from above.
Port-au-Prince from above.
Bernabe Leobardo Salinas Jasso/ABC News

The violence has also led to a deepening nationwide food crisis. For the first time, famine-like conditions were recently recorded in the country as 4.9 million Haitians, about half the country, don't have enough to eat.

Inside Cite Soleil, we watch as the World Food Programme feeds 600 schoolchildren a lunch of Haitian rice and beans. For many, like 12-year-old Michael Francois, it's the only solid meal he'll get that day.

"When the shooting starts, I feel less than human," he told us. "I feel so powerless and weak."

Just outside the school walls, marked with bullet holes, Michael takes us to his home and shows us the bed he hides under when the shooting starts.

When the violence gets bad enough, the entire neighborhood can be completely cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time.

That means no drinking water coming in, no food, no trash pickup.

PHOTO: A mom and son wash clothes in Cite Soleil.
A mom and son wash clothes in Cite Soleil.
Bernabe Leobardo Salinas Jasso/ABC News
PHOTO: Cite Soleil residents eat donated lunch.
Cite Soleil residents eat donated lunch.
Bernabe Leobardo Salinas Jasso/ABC News

Hundreds of people have died in this neighborhood over the last few months as a result. There's been a severe cholera outbreak. What's happening here is the definition of a humanitarian crisis.

Not far, at a busy public hospital, we watch as mothers bring in malnourished children. We meet 4-year-old Marvens and his mother, Paulette. He weighs around 20 pounds, about the same as my 9-month-old son.

His mother is considering giving him up for adoption because she can't find work and food is so difficult to come by.

Part of the reason for that is because gangs have cut off access to Haiti's locally grown food. We took a UN helicopter north to the city of Gonaives, the urban center of a region commonly known as Haiti's breadbasket.

Plentiful, nutritious food is grown here but it simply can't make it to market. Farmers and wholesalers have been robbed, kidnapped and killed simply for trying to sell their goods in the open markets.

One 21-year-old farmer told us she was kidnapped and raped as she tried to bring her peppers to sell.

PHOTO: A man harvests mango in northern Haiti.
A man harvests mango in northern Haiti.
Bernabe Leobardo Salinas Jasso/ABC News
PHOTO: Women walk in Gonaives market.
Women walk in Gonaives market.
Bernabe Leobardo Salinas Jasso/ABC News

Even if farmers managed to get their crop to the market, the sole highway that runs between Gonaives and Port-au-Prince is controlled by gangs. Flying above, you can see how empty it is. The food is being grown but it can't get to where it needs to be.

The reasons for this spike in violence are myriad and complicated.

It's been nearly two years since Haiti's president was assassinated. New elections have still not been called and right now there is not a single elected representative at any level of government.

Armed groups have filled the ensuing vacuum, especially in Port-au-Prince, seeking to grow their power and take advantage of the chaos. Ahead of new elections, tentatively set for 2024, those armed groups plan to wield that power as much as possible to get their preferred candidates on the ballot.

The UN has put out a humanitarian call for more than $700 million to address the crisis in Haiti, only of which about 13% has been funded, the organization said.

So where is the international community in all this? What can be done? That's for another, even longer, note.

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