Escalating gang violence has pushed nearly 8,500 women and children from their homes in Haiti’s capital in the past two weeks, a report by the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) says.
Officials say that gangs fighting over territory in Port-au-Prince has forced hundreds of families to abandon burned or ransacked homes in impoverished communities, with many of them staying in gymnasiums and other temporary shelters that are running out of water, food and items such as blankets and clothes.
UNICEF Haiti representative Bruno Maes compared the effect to guerrilla warfare, “with thousands of children and women caught in the crossfire.”
Nearly 14,000 people in Port-au-Prince have been displaced by violence in the past nine months, the UN office overseeing humanitarian coordination said.
Families with young children have been sleeping on concrete floors of a gymnasium in the Carrefour neighborhood, with only a sheet serving as a bed and their scant belongings stuffed into bags nearby.
Many expect the violence to increase as Haiti prepares for general elections scheduled for September and November. They accuse gangs of trying to boost support for certain candidates and of targeting neighborhoods that have organized protests against Haitian President Jovenel Moise.
Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network executive director Pierre Esperance said that gangs control about 60 percent of the nation and that 12 massacres have been reported since 2018 in disadvantaged communities.
However, he said he is especially worried about the most recent upswing in violence.
“It’s the worst we’ve seen,” Esperance said. “Gangs have so much power and they are tolerated... Each day that passes with Jovenel in power, the situation is going to deteriorate.”
A spokesman for Moise could not be immediately reached for comment.
Haitian National Police General Director Leon Charles last week said that the gangs are fighting over territory and called on people to rise up against them.
“The moment has arrived for the collaboration of all sectors” of society, Charles said.
In addition to infiltrating rival shantytowns, gangs have targeted police stations, killing several officers.
Businesses and schools have closed, and public transportation has ceased in communities most affected by the violence.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said its emergency center in Martissant received more than 40 patients with gunshot wounds from June 2 to 4 alone, and that its employees have had to take cover from stray bullets.
“We are witnessing an extremely worrying deterioration in the security situation,” MSF said. “At a time when we should be scaling up because of COVID-19 and other needs, we are struggling to keep our existing facilities open due to insecurity.”
MSF said that it is worried people are not seeking medical help for fear of being injured or killed if they leave their homes as Haiti struggles with a spike in COVID-19 cases while still awaiting its first shipment of vaccines.
Esperance said that he does not foresee a quick solution.
“It will be absolutely impossible to hold elections in Haiti in 2021,” he said.
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