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‘Constant death’: Haiti aid workers brave bullets to help

Haiti has been rocked by gang violence since late February
Haiti has been rocked by gang violence since late February - Copyright AFP MANAN VATSYAYANA
Haiti has been rocked by gang violence since late February - Copyright AFP MANAN VATSYAYANA
Joris Fioriti

Aid workers in Haiti’s capital are demonstrating great courage to brave the gangs, the stray bullets and the risk of abduction just to go to work every day, according to humanitarians operating in the chaos-wracked Caribbean nation.

“Here there is constant death,” said Haitian doctor Elysee Joseph, who works for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Haiti.

“It’s an act of heroic bravery to continue going to work. In Haiti, when you think the worst has happened, something worse is always around the corner.”

The former French colony has suffered years of political instability and crime, and no elections have been held since 2016. 

But the situation has worsened since late February when armed gangs attacked police stations, prisons and government headquarters, and forced the shutdown of the port and airport in a spasm of violence that led then prime minister Ariel Henry to resign.

Joseph said fellow aid workers were exhausted because the challenges to their work also affected their loved ones in their private lives.

They live with “post-traumatic stress constantly being made worse” by new events, said the doctor, one of some 1,500 mostly Haitian MSF employees across the country.

Sarah Chateau, who oversees the Haiti programme at MSF, described a “humanitarian disaster”.

The capital Port-au-Prince has become “an open-air jail, a completely landlocked city”, she said.

The three million people living there have become “trapped”, “with constant gunfire” ringing out across the city, she added.

– ‘Kidnapped for five days’ –

With the country’s largest port and airport closed, the city and the rest of Haiti are cut off from fresh supplies.

The violence since late February has displaced 362,000 people from their homes and pushed 1.64 million across the Caribbean nation to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

Aid workers who are trying to help are doing so in frightening conditions.

Chateau said MSF staff had treated 400 people for gunshot wounds at four hospitals in Port-au-Prince in recent weeks.

A stray bullet last weekend whizzed into an MSF residence, and the week before two shot right into a hospital where the charity’s staff were working, she added.

Gangs control the roads in and out of the capital.

“A colleague wanted to get out to see her son in the countryside. She was kidnapped for five days,” she said.

MSF alone had logged two abductions and two attempted abductions against employees in a month and a half since gangs seized control, she said.

– ‘Child soldiers’  –

Carlotta Pianigiani, a coordinator for the Alima charity, said she had “never been confronted by such a level of violence”.

“In Haiti, you see things you don’t see anywhere else. It has become normal to see dead bodies in the street,” she said.

Some were charred after the “Bwa Kale” self-defence movement appeared to have burnt them and left them there as a warning to others.

Humanitarians, like Haitians, depend on hour-by-hour updates on WhatsApp chat groups to remain safe, she said.

The situation is different from that in war-torn Gaza, with gun battles in one and air strikes pummelling the other, she said.

But “they are the two places where it is most dangerous to work as a humanitarian organisation,” Pianigiani said.

William O’Neill, the UN expert for human rights in Haiti, said he was worried about “child soldiers” being dragged into the violence.

Thirteen, 14, and 15-year-olds who once acted as messengers or lookouts are today yielding weapons, he said.

“Hospitals need everything: medicine, surgical gloves, anaesthetics,” O’Neill said.

Fuel for generators has become unaffordable, like everything else.

Virginie Vialas, the Haiti coordinator for the Swiss branch of Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), however, tried to stay positive.

“At least we can still work for now,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen in a few months.”

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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