Fear stalks Haitians as their murdered president is buried and gangs terrorize the capital

Port-au-Prince, Kidnapped from church, shot at during an evening commute, chased out of their homes as flames licked up the street.

Stories of abduction, lethal attack and indiscriminate destruction are endless in Haiti’s seaside city of Port-au-Prince, where everyone seems to know someone who barely made it out alive — and where many did not, in what rights organizations describe as a particularly dangerous year even before the assassination of former president Jovenel Moise drew the world’s attention.

Haiti’s elite congregated Friday in the historic northern port city of Cap-Haitien for Moise’s funeral. His widow, Martine, the former first lady who was wounded in the same July 7 attack that claimed her husband’s life, addressed mourners with a dark warning.

“The birds of prey are still running the streets, their bloody claws still looking for prey. They don’t even hide, they are here, they just watch us, listen to us, hoping to scare us. Their thirst for blood has not yet subsided,” she said, an apparent reference to her husband’s killers.

Several suspects in the ongoing assassination investigation remain on the loose, and a mastermind has not yet been identified.

With the former president laid to rest in his home region, expect the jockeying for power to recommence with vigor. Political observers will be eager to see if the recent alliance between two rival prime ministers will hold; whether the interim government will finally hold elections as hoped for by the international community; and if Haiti’s civil society coalition can finally unite to propose an alternative transitional government.

But in the capital city Port-au-Prince, many Haitian families are more focused on the circling of their own birds of prey.

Since June, more than 15,500 people in the city have had to flee their homes due to gang violence and rampant arson. City residents who manage to avoid direct exposure to violence are navigating skyrocketing inflation, frequent blackouts, and shortages of food and fuel, due in large part to gang activity choking off key delivery routes.

And while the wealthy may still live comfortably in high-walled compounds on the city’s loftier slopes, no amount of money can guarantee safety from the soaring threat of kidnapping.

This has been a summer of fire in Port-au-Prince. Hundreds of homes across the city have been burned to the ground by gangs — and even, some victims insist, by police battling the gangs. Marie Michele Vernier, press secretary for Haiti’s National Police, says such accusations “have not been verified,” adding that the police “could never conduct themselves that way.”

Yslande, 38, and her three children were forced to flee her home in the Delmas neighborhood in the middle of the night on June 4. “There were people shooting at each other in the streets. The bandits came and said, ‘You have to leave your home or you will die,'” Paul says.

Without time even to grab clothing, the family fled down the street to a bank parking lot in lower Delmas, where they spent the night. Some 400 families would end up there under similar circumstances, before ultimately relocating to the local church Eglise St. Yves, according to Chrisle Luca Napoléon, head of local children’s aid organization OCCEDH.

Paul and her family now live in a crowded, unfinished concrete-block building next to the church, where OCCEDH and UNICEF have set up rudimentary toilets and food for displaced families. There is no private space — in one room, holes in the walls serve as windows and dozens of people vie for space to sit or lie down. Aid workers warn of the risk of sexual violence and teen prostitution around such shelters.

“This is not comfortable or safe for my children,” says Marijou, a mother of four children, including a newborn, whose home was also set on fire.

“The building is not in good condition, I’m afraid if there is another earthquake there could be a lot of damage. Wind and rain comes through the building and the baby cries all the time,” the 30-year-old says.

But asked where she might go next, Marijou was at a loss. “I don’t know. I don’t know yet. We lost our house and everything we had. We lost everything. It depends on the authorities and the state.”

Gangs control over 60% of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, estimates Pierre Esperance, executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.

More than 200,000 city residents are effectively hostages in their own homes by geographic misfortune, cut off from basic services and transportation in gang-controlled areas where even the police dare not go.

Criminals’ grip on the capital has repercussions even beyond city limits; as Haiti’s main port, Port-au-Prince has become a chokepoint for imported food and fuel — not to mention recently arrived shipments of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Even those Haitians who live in the rest of the country are affected,” says Esperance, who blames the late president Moise for allowing gang activity to flourish. “We produce bananas, yams, avocados, sweet potatoes, yucca, and country people come to the nation’s capital to sell them. But today, people from the country cannot come (to Port-au-Prince), because of the insecurity issue; they cannot come because of the gangsters. That brings them into deeper poverty.”

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