The Shattered Hopes of the Haitian People

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti – A new report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), says Haiti’s population is being held hostage to brutality and gang violence.

ARTWORArtwork from Francisco Silva, featured in a UN humanitarian report on Haiti. (Photo courtesy OCHA)In its 2023 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO)for Haiti,  the OCHA for describes life in the country as a daily, terrifying struggle for survival, the result of three consecutive years of economic recession, a political impasse, and unprecedented levels of gang violence.

It said every day, more and more people fall into extreme poverty with 1 per cent of the population lives on less than US$2.15 a day, and an estimated 4.8 million are food-insecure, which means that they struggle to meet their daily nutritional needs.

The report notes that Haiti’s entire population, 11.5 million people, are hostage to brutality and gang violence.

It said since 2020, Haiti’s gangs have developed sophisticated tactics and formed powerful coalitions. They now encircle the metropolitan area of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and their clashes with the Haitian National Police have resulted in countless victims and a permanent climate of fear.

In the heart of Port-au-Prince, the infamous Cité Soleil commune illustrates the gangs’ power. Women and girls, as well as men, are raped and assaulted with indescribable violence. Gang rape is frequently used as a form of intimidation and to prevent resistance,” the report noted.

The report provides some of the heartbreaking stories of the many survivors.

“I was at home when I heard the sound of flying bullets outside. I started to run to escape, and that’s when a young man caught me. Despite my pleas, he would not let me go,” said a woman recounting her story.

All the while, he continued to abuse me. I am the mother of 11 children, their father died the same day in the city. It was the first time I was sexually abused; it was terrifying.”

This type of violence happens daily, randomly and, unfortunately, sometimes repeatedly. A young girl explains:

“To tell you the truth, I was raped twice. The second time, it started on 14 July when my father was coming home from work. He was shot and burned in front of us. The next day, men came knocking on the door of the house where my two little brothers, my mother and I were staying. They threatened to burn the house down if we didn’t open the doors. I was wearing a dress when I went to open the door. They put me on the bed and abused me in front of my family, while beating them.”

Most survivors do not report their abusers, who enjoy de facto impunity due to the weakness of Haiti’s police and judicial system. They remain silent for fear of stigma or reprisals.

The violence causes many Haitians to flee, either just a few hundred meters from their home or several thousand kilometers away.

“I am young, I am ashamed of what happened. Even though many of us are going through the same thing, there are people who make fun of us because of what happened. We have no value in front of the young boys in the neighborhood. This situation hurts me. I would like to get out of the area, I would like not to go through this situation again that I endure every day.”

OCHA said that the violence causes many Haitians to flee, either just a few hundred meters from their home or several thousand kilometers away.

It said every day, more and more people fall into extreme poverty; 31 per cent of the population lives on less than US$2.15 a day.

In the neighborhoods where they operate, gangs hold merchants and businesses to ransom, paralyzing the economy. Despite the constant fear of going out and losing their lives, Haitians’ motivation is still there, as is their desire to work.

John, not his real name, says “it is a real destruction of the economic and social life of the people who live in these places.

“Someone who builds a house sees it burned down in a few days or occupied by gangs in strategic areas. For the hundreds of small businesses, there are two options: bankruptcy or fire.

“Those who remain are those who have no other option and no economic means to go and live elsewhere. We know that the whole country suffers from a lack of jobs and income, but here it is even worse. We just want to exchange the worst for the slightly less bad.

“There are so many people begging that the people who give are also the ones begging a street away.”

OCHA says Haiti’s security situation is undermining its fragile economy. Price increases and the lack of income are causing the demand for goods to fall, which is damaging the economy. As a result, the most vulnerable people can no longer meet their nutritional needs.

Clément, a single parent forced to flee violence, says his life is ruined, adding “nothing works for me anymore. I have four children, of whom I am both the father and the mother.

“Because of the insecurity, I live with my sister who lives in a shelter with her husband and five children. It is very difficult for me because I don’t work. I am a merchant, but I don’t do anything to provide for my family.

“I ran away without money, without my goods, to save my children’s lives. There are almost all the products available on the market, but I can’t buy them. I look at my children, I don’t know when they will die of hunger.

“My biggest challenge is not being able to feed them and seeing my children who didn’t ask to be born,” Clément added.

OCHA says health has become a privilege for Haitians, with almost a quarter of the population living more than an hour’s drive from first aid.

It said the country's deteriorating security and economic situation is a major barrier to accessing basic health services. After the Ministry of Public Health and Population confirmed two cholera cases in October 2022, the epidemic spread rapidly across the country; there were more than 22,000 suspected cases by the year’s end.

Chrismene’s family, like so many others, has to cope with the disease while living in precarious sanitary conditions.

“My two-year-old was taken to hospital after giving me a big scare: She had diarrhea and was vomiting all the time. I noticed it on Tuesday morning when I was preparing food. Everything was fine, but in the evening she was moving around. During the night I saw that her stomach was distended, so we decided to go to the doctor.”

Access to care is often complicated by the cost in private facilities and transport costs.

“When we arrived at the doctor’s, he told us that he could not take us without paying. So we rushed to a public hospital on a motorbike and borrowed 1,500 gourdes (US$9.70) from a friend.

“When we arrived, they didn’t even have time to make a chart, so they gave her a serum. There was no bed, so I spent the day sitting on a bench, giving her the serum. The doctors took good care of her, I’m happy with what they did for her. Today the diarrhea is still there, but the vomiting has stopped.”

Chrismene’s daughter seems to be out of the woods, but cholera could still strike her family. She knows that lack of access to water is a major factor in the spread of cholera in Haiti:

“A gallon of drinking water sells for 30 gourdes (US$0.19). Sometimes I go all day without water because I have no money,” she adds.

“Domestic water, for washing clothes, is not a problem for us. It is drinking water that is difficult. I am afraid that other people will drink the domestic water by default and get sick.”

OCHA said only 20 per cent of Haiti’s schools are public, the rest are private, tuition based and unaffordable for most people.

Children are among Haiti’s most vulnerable people. Parents want to see their children go to school and succeed, but many can no longer afford their education. In some gang-controlled neighborhoods, students’ and teachers’ access to schools is impossible. The situation’s impact on Haiti’s future is alarming.

Rose, a teacher at a school in Port-au-Prince, notes students’ growing dependence on school-feeding programs:

“I think the meal is very important for the children, it really helps them. Sometimes they come without food, so we give them salt water so that they don’t faint. We always ask them if they had a meal before coming to school.

“Unfortunately, the answer is almost always no. It’s so rare to get a positive answer that when it happens, we talk about it among the teachers.”

Rose also talks about her fear of walking to school:

“Well, in the last few months, Port-au-Prince has been very difficult for us. Difficult in the sense that you have to go out as a teacher, but you are afraid. It is not normal to go to work with fear in your stomach. It’s the same for the pupils and even the parents.

“Parents are afraid to send their children to school in the morning and not see them again in the evening. There is shooting everywhere, all the time. Sometimes you don’t know where the bullets will come from.

“You can get a bullet in the schoolyard or in a classroom, because when they [the gangs] shoot, the bullets have no direction. Because of the shooting, the children are no longer able to concentrate in class,” Rose said.