A bloody wave of shootings, arson and other criminal violence has engulfed parts of Port-au-Prince, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and trapping others within dangerous areas of the Haitian capital, aid agencies say.
Most recently, a series of killings on Tuesday night claimed the lives of radio journalist Diego Charles and activist Antoinette Duclair among others, according to a statement by Haiti’s government.
“The government vehemently condemns these abominable actions and the blind violence which sows trouble and mourning in every level of the Haitian population,” read the statement, which added that the country’s national police and justice ministry had been instructed to bring the killers to justice.
“These odious crimes and reprehensible actions cannot go unpunished in a democratic society,” it said.
Criminal activity and territorial disputes between an estimated 95 armed gangs are causing “widespread panic” in Port-au-Prince, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Armed groups have targeted local police and set fire to swathes of civilian homes as well as a camp populated by people with disabilities. The violence prompted an estimated 13,600 city residents to flee their homes in June alone – a massive increase from the 3,400 people displaced by gang activity in the previous nine months, according a report last week by the humanitarian agency.
Nathalie was one of the early victims, forced to flee with her baby earlier this year, after their home was set on fire during a battle between rival gangs, she said. She asked CNN to withhold her last name due to safety concerns.
Her husband had been killed while out buying groceries, the 27-year-old added, speaking to CNN from a temporary encampment where she has been living for months. More than 230 other families are also living in the camp due to similar reasons, she said.
“They burned down our house, which is why we had to find space in this camp. We were collateral damage in the gang fights between G9 and the other gangs who are looking to take over the neighborhood,” Nathalie said, referring to a federation of gangs led by infamous ex-police officer Jimmy Cherizier, who last week vowed before local media to carry out a “revolution” in the city.
Bruno Maes, UNICEF representative based in Port-au-Prince, told CNN his agency had collected “hundreds” of testimonies from other women and children whose homes were also burned down by armed groups.
Fighting has prevented aid agencies from directly reaching many of the displaced families sheltering by the thousands in churches and community centers, Maes said. Others are dispersed across the city.
For now, aid is being funneled through local networks, but he warns that humanitarian workers will need better access as the peak of the Caribbean’s hurricane season approaches.
Insecurity is having a ripple effect on national supply chains, Maes also said. “Gun violence is taking control of more and more space,” he said. Criminal control of major transit arteries in the country’s biggest city – which is also its main port – are slowing food and fuel deliveries to other parts of the country – a serious threat in a population where the UN estimates 46 percent of people are already “food-insecure.”
The chaos also threatens everyday access to medical treatment in the capital, as Covid-19 surges in Haiti. Doctors without Borders has cut back activities in parts of Port-au-Prince, citing recent episodes where medical staff were forced to shelter from stray bullets and armed individuals robbed ambulance drivers.
The US Embassy in Haiti has expressed concern over the violence and called for action from the Haitian government. “The United States urges the government of Haiti to protect its citizens by countering the proliferation of gangs and by holding the perpetrators of violence and their accomplices accountable,” it said in a statement released Wednesday.
But for now, Haiti’s leaders appear unable to contain the violence – a fact that Nathalie, the displaced mother, describes as unforgivable. It’s all happening under the government’s watch, she said. “No one came to our rescue despite days of gang fighting.”
The Prime Minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.