PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A spike in violence has deepened hunger and poverty in Haiti while hindering the very aid organizations combating those problems in a country whose government struggles to provide basic services.
Few relief workers are willing to speak on the record about the cuts — perhaps worried about drawing attention following the October kidnapping of 17 people from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries — 12 of whom remain held hostage.
Several confirmed that some of their staff had been sent out and were forced to cut down aid operations temporarily.
Aid groups have been prevented from reaching parts of Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in the country by gang-related shootings and kidnappings.
Agency operations have been hampered by a severe fuel shortage.
“It’s just getting worse in every way possible,” said Margarett Lubin, Haiti director for CORE, a U.S. nonprofit organization.
“You see the situation deteriorating day after day, impacting life at every level,” Lubin said, adding that aid organizations have gone into “survival mode.”
Few places in the world are so dependent on aid groups as Haiti, a nation frequently called “the republic of NGOs.” Billions of dollars in aid have been poured through hundreds – by some estimates several thousand – of aid groups even as the government has grown steadily weaker and less effective.
Ariel Henry was elected Prime Minister shortly after the assassination and subsequent political instability in the country. Nearly all the seats in parliament are vacant and there’s no firm date yet for long-delayed elections, though Henry said he expects them early next year.
In a nation of over 11 million inhabitants, less than one dozen elected officials represent the country.
The gangs are the rulers on the streets.
More than 460 kidnappings have been reported by Haiti’s National Police so far this year, more than double what was reported last year, according to the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti.
The agency said Haitians are “living in hell under the yoke of armed gangs. Rapes, murders, thefts, armed attacks, kidnappings continue to be committed daily, on populations often left to fend for themselves in disadvantaged and marginalized neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince and beyond.”
The agency added: “Without being able to access these areas under the control of gangs, we are far from knowing and measuring the extent of these abuses and what Haitians really experience on a daily basis…
“Humanitarian actors have also limited their interventions due to the security risks to their staff and access challenges,” it added.
Large organizations like the U.N. World Food Program have found alternate ways to help people, such as using barges rather than vulnerable trucks to ferry goods from the capital to Haiti’s southern region. But smaller organizations don’t always have such means.
World Vision International is a California-based charity that aids children in Haiti. It told The Associated Press it had relocated at most 11 of its 320 employees due to violence. Other staff are being taken undisclosed security precautions.
Water Mission, a South Carolina nonprofit, said it’s exploring relocating to other areas in Haiti and it said kidnappings and overall violence have forced it to change staffing plans to ensure people’s safety.
“These issues sometimes result in slower progress in our ongoing safe water project work,” the organization said. “However, we continue with our work despite any temporary interruptions that arise.”
These difficulties occur at a time when there is a growing need for assistance. Mid-August saw a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that destroyed thousands of homes, and more than 2,200 people were killed. A recent influx of over 12,000 Haitians from the U.S. is adding to the country’s problems.
UNICEF estimates that more than 22,000 people fled their homes this year due to gang violence. Many are living in shelters under extremely unhealthy conditions, and some of them have been affected by the pandemic. UNICEF estimates that it requires $97million to aid 1,000,000 Haitians in the next year.
Martin Jean Junior (50 years old) is one of them. He used to sell scrap metal. His house was set ablaze in June by police and gangs, he said.
“I have been in the streets since,” he said as he lay on a blue sheet he had spread on the hard floor of a Port-au-Prince school temporarily converted into a shelter.
It could be worse. This week, an influential gang leader in Haiti warned Haitians not to go into Martissant. Rival gangs are coming after them.
“Even the dogs and the rats won’t be saved. Anything that moves, trucks, motorcycles, people, will be considered allies of Ti-Bois,” the gang leader known as “Izo” said in a video, referring to a rival gang. “Martissant is declared a combat zone, and those who ignore this warning will pay with their life.”
The area is largely avoided by most people because of the risk of being kidnapped and shot as well as cargo theft. That has largely cut off the country’s southern peninsula because the main highway runs through the neighborhood.
Martissant was the scene of crossfire that killed a nurse, seven-year old girl and five people on board a public bus. Doctors Without Borders, an aid organization that provides humanitarian assistance to the region, had to shut down the emergency room in August after the violence. The clinic was a 15-year-old community fixture.
Liman Pierre (40-year-old mechanic) said that he had recently crossed Martissant to get to work. He saw four people dead, two of them elderly neighbours and the driver who was transporting them.
“The criminals kill with impunity and abandon the dead to the dogs,” he said. “Those who aren’t devoured by dogs are set on fire, pure and simple. This can’t be.”
For now, Pierre is sleeping on the streets of Port-au-Prince because he fears having to cross Martissant to get back home: “You don’t even get the opportunity to visit parents and friends who are in difficulty.”
“The state doesn’t exist,” Pierre said. “Criminals have been in power for over six months. It is December, and we do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Coto was based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.