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Humanitarians tell of the “open-air prison” of Port-au-Prince

Photo: Odelyn Joseph Associated Press A woman carries baskets containing food on her head and in her hand in the Pétion-Ville district of Port-au-Prince.

Joris Fioriti – Agence France-Presse in Paris

10:52 a.m.

  • Americas

Lost bullets in hospitals, kidnappings, constant fear of gangs, risk of famine, shortages… humanitarians recount the “disaster” of Port-au-Prince and the “heroism” of their peers, submissive according to them at a level of danger making Haiti the worst place for their profession after Gaza.

The Haitian capital, a month and a half after coordinated attacks by armed gangs, is “an open-air prison, a completely isolated city”, in a country where “there is no longer a government, no more state”, Sarah Chateau, head of the Haiti program for Médecins sans frontières (MSF), told AFP.

The three million inhabitants of Port-au-Prince and its outskirts are “trapped”, “with constant shooting”, she continues.

The country's largest port and airport are prevented from operating, blocking all supplies. The roads leading into and out of the city are held by the same violent groups.

“We have a colleague who recently wanted to leave Port-au-Prince to go see her son in the provinces. She was kidnapped for five days,” says Sarah Chateau, who mentions “two kidnappings and two attempted kidnappings” in total against MSF personnel in a month and a half.

The capital is experiencing a “humanitarian disaster”, observes the executive of Médecins sans frontières, the largest NGO involved in Haiti, with 1,500 employees, and of which four hospitals in Port-au-Prince have treated more than 400 injured by bullets in recent weeks.


“There are so many shots constantly” that “stray bullets” fall into MSF structures, notably “one this weekend in the base camp (teams, Editor’s note), and two in a hospital last week,” she notes.

“I was sometimes afraid,” says Carlotta Pianigiani, emergency coordinator for the African NGO Alima, who claims to have “never been confronted with such a strong level of violence”.

“In Haiti, we see things that we don’t see elsewhere. There is a kind of normality in finding yourself faced with corpses in the street,” she tells AFP. In particular those of alleged gang members burned by the “Bwa Kale” self-defense movement.

Hence “hour-by-hour monitoring of events”, notably via real-time alerts appearing on “WhatsApp groups for citizen support”, says Ms. Pianigiani.

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“If risk management is totally different between Haiti and Gaza, between air attacks and frontal attacks, these are the two places where it is the most dangerous for humanitarian organizations to intervene,” she insists.

William O’Neill, expert designated for Haiti by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is frightened by the presence of “child soldiers” in the capital. Young people of “13, 14 or 15 years old”, who previously served as “messengers or lookouts”, but who according to him now hold “big weapons”.

While Haiti has been ravaged for decades by poverty, natural disasters and political instability, powerful Haitian gangs joined forces at the end of February to attack police stations, prisons, and major infrastructure in order to oust the prime minister. Ariel Henry, who announced her resignation on March 11.


But the Transitional Council, which was to replace it, has still not been formed a month later, due in particular to disagreements between political parties and other stakeholders.

However, the country is in a “cataclysmic” state, according to the UN. Because the violence, which paralyzes the capital, prevents supplies to other regions. Some 362,000 Haitians are now internally displaced, 5 million people are hungry and 1.64 million are on the brink of famine, according to the same source.

The country is also experiencing a shortage of medicines. “Hospitals need everything: medicines, surgical gloves, anesthetics…” lists William O’Neill. But also gasoline, the prices of which have soared, like those of all consumer goods, to run their generators.

The only drop of hope, the NGOs all confirm that they are not directly threatened and want to continue their task.

“Let’s try to keep the positive side of things in the sense that we can still work. We don’t know what will happen in a few months,” observes Virginie Vialas, general coordinator in Haiti of Médecins du Monde Suisse.

But humanitarians “are at the end of their rope” because the “chaos” that they are painfully trying to contain also affects their private lives, with “post-traumatic stress that accumulates all the time,” notes Haitian doctor Élysée Joseph, who works for MSF.

“Here, death is something constant”, and “it is an act of heroism (for humanitarians) to continue to go to work”, he soberly notes. In Haiti, “when you think the worst has happened, there is always something to make the situation worse. »

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116