With ports closed and an already existing hunger crisis, Haiti is running out of time: Reporter's notebook

About 1.4 million Haitians are on the verge of famine, according to WFP.

March 20, 2024, 10:36 PM

The sound of gunfire ricocheted around Marie Lina Leon's home with a terrifying ferocity that was for her, heartbreakingly familiar.

Round after round slicing through the air just outside, gangs against police, the concussions rattling the windows of her concrete home near Haiti's National Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince, and yet, for the 41-year-old, she's been through this nightmare before.

So, she went back to her fight-or-flight playbook: Telling her 11-year-old son Fabien that everything would be okay, wait for the gunfire to subside and run when there was a chance.

"If I had stayed there, I could not imagine what would have happened," Leon told ABC News. "We could have died, I could not worry about taking anything. I had no other choice."

A woman carrying a child runs from the area after gunshots were heard in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 20, 2024.
Clarens Siffroy/AFP via Getty Images

Gang fighting forced Leon from her two previous homes over the past few years and now she'd made up her mind to leave a third.

She and her son ran just like the rest of her petrified neighbors. Leon said she followed a crowd, swept up in a wave of chaos that eventually deposited them in front of an abandoned building.

The building, two stories tall and wide, had a fading façade lined with the words, "Ministére de la Communication." It was a government building now abandoned, a poignant metaphor for Haiti's government today, as the state fails.

The hundreds of people Leon showed up with forced their way inside and took shelter as the gunfire continued. The fact that government employees had already fled the building made that a lot easier.

That's about as much as the Haitian state has done for its people in the last few weeks.

The humanitarian crisis has exploded, with more than 15,000 people forced from their homes in Port-au-Prince since the end of February, joining the more than 300,000 displaced countrywide in recent years.

Hunger, already at critical levels, is primed to get much worse, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), which said more than a million people could tip into famine and starvation.

PHOTO: People walk past a barricade in a road in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 20, 2024.
People walk past a barricade in a road in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 20, 2024. Negotiations to form a transitional council to govern Haiti advanced on March 20, as the United States airlifted more citizens to safety from gang violence that has plunged the impoverished country into chaos.
Clarens Siffroy/AFP via Getty Images

Gangs control the ports and the highways, closing them entirely and preventing critical aid from reaching where it is needed most. The lone international airport in the capital city remains shuttered.

There is a legitimate fear amongst aid groups in Haiti that the country will face critical shortages soon if nothing changes.

"With the ports shut down, there is now real concern that Port-au-Prince could actually run out of food and other essential supplies in the next two weeks," Jean Marc deMatteis, the CEO of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, one of Haiti's most important hospitals, told ABC News.

For those inside the makeshift government-building-turned-shelter, the hunger is palpable. Upon walking through, many people asked ABC News journalists if they'd brought anything to eat or drink. A few children simply offered outstretched hands.

Several people said they had not eaten in two days.

"We are dying of hunger," said Leon. "The babies are dying of hunger. The disabled are dying of hunger. The young are dying of hunger. Everyone is dying of hunger. We can't help each other."

With major ports of entry closed, the only way aid groups can help feed the hungry is by sourcing more food locally. It's a strategy spearheaded by both the WFP and World Central Kitchen (WCK), among others.

The idea is to use funding to purchase more food from Haitian farmers, both increasing local production and lessening reliance on foreign sources of food.

WCK will soon be serving roughly 7,000 hot meals per day to local communities in the underserved central region of Artibonite.

Jean-Martin Bauer, the Haiti country director for WFP, said his organization managed to deliver 11,500 hot meals in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, though he said the number should be higher.

People walk past a damaged car in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood, which was deserted due to gang violence, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 19, 2024.
Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

"Today, there were many roadblocks in Port-au-Prince…We will do everything we can to help, but we need security and access," he posted on X.

Bauer's post highlights the obstacles facing those trying to help. The aid they provide is important but it is a trickle when a torrent is what's needed.

Haiti's newfound, gang-induced isolation has a catastrophic effect not only on lack of access to food aid but on everything "from diesel for electricity production, to medicines to oxygen for hospitals," said deMatteis.

The collective result is the compounding of a humanitarian crisis already among the worst in the world.

"Sexual violence and rapes, the U.N. has stopped even trying to count because they know they can't keep up with the cases. Killings, torture, disappearances, kidnapping, it's on a scale I've never seen before," said William O'Neill, the United Nations' independent expert on the human rights situation in Haiti.

With no political solution in sight, the international community dithering and the gangs promising only more chaos, Haiti seems set for nothing but more pain.

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