Haiti Capital a ‘City under Siege’ amid Spasm of Gang Violence

AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File
Members of MINUSTAH, a U.N. force established in 2004, patrol the Marttisant community in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 31, 2007.

Residents of Haiti’s capital scrambled for safety Saturday following the latest spasm of gang violence, with a UN group warning of a “city under siege” after armed attackers targeted the presidential palace and police headquarters.

Criminal groups, which already control much of Port-au-Prince as well as roads leading to the rest of the country, have unleashed havoc in recent days as they try to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry as leader of the Western hemisphere’s poorest country.

On Saturday, dozens of residents were seeking safety in public buildings, with some successfully breaking into one facility, according to an AFP correspondent.

The unrest has seen 362,000 Haitians internally displaced — more than half of them children and some forced to move multiple times, the International Organization for Migration said Saturday.

“Haitians are unable to lead a decent life. They are living in fear, and every day, every hour this situation carries on, the trauma gets worse,” Philippe Branchat, IOM’s chief in Haiti, said in a statement.

“People living in the capital are locked in, they have nowhere to go,” he said. “The capital is surrounded by armed groups and danger. It is a city under siege.”

Police on Friday night repelled gang attacks, including on the presidential palace, and several “bandits” were killed, Lionel Lazarre of the Haitian police union said. No police were among the victims.

The violence left burned-out vehicles, still smoldering, outside the Interior Ministry and on nearby streets, an AFP correspondent said.

Gunshots rang out late Friday throughout Port-au-Prince and witnesses recounted clashes “between police officers and bandits” as gangs apparently tried to commandeer police stations in the city center.

Lazarre pleaded Saturday for “means and equipment” to protect police buildings and other key facilities.

State of emergency

The well-armed gangs have attacked key infrastructure in recent days, including two prisons, allowing the majority of their 3,800 inmates to escape.

Along with some ordinary Haitians, the gangs are seeking the resignation of Prime Minister Henry, who was due to leave office in February but instead agreed to a power-sharing deal with the opposition until new elections are held.

The United States has asked Henry to enact urgent political reform to prevent further escalation. But he was in Kenya when the violence broke out and is now reportedly stranded in the US territory of Puerto Rico.

After months of delays, the UN Security Council finally gave its green light in October for a multinational policing mission led by Kenya, but that deployment has been stalled by Kenyan courts.

Port-au-Prince and western Haiti have been placed under a month-long state of emergency and a nighttime curfew was in effect until Monday, though it was unlikely overstretched police could enforce it.

‘Simple cigarette salesman’

Port-au-Prince resident Fabiola Sanon told AFP her 32-year-old husband James, “a simple cigarette salesman,” was killed in the unrest.

He used to wake up early to earn money for their son’s breakfast before taking him to school, she said.

“James has never been in conflict with anyone,” Sanon said.

Haiti’s airport remained closed while the main port — a key point for food imports — reported looting since suspending services on Thursday, despite efforts to set up a security perimeter.

“If we cannot access those containers (full of food), Haiti will go hungry soon,” the NGO Mercy Corps warned in a statement.

CARICOM, an alliance of Caribbean nations, has summoned envoys from the United States, France, Canada and the United Nations to a meeting Monday in Jamaica to discuss the violence.

Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali said the meeting would take up “critical issues for the stabilization of security and the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance.”

The violence is threatening the country’s most vulnerable, including pregnant women and survivors of sexual violence, as the health system collapses.

Branchat, of IOM, deplored gang attacks on hospitals and “dire” lack of mental health services.

“Some hospitals have been run over by gangs and had to evacuate staff and patients, including newborns,” he said.

“Medical professionals across the capital are sounding the alarm as their capacity to deliver even the most basic medical services is severely diminished.”