‘How are you?’ ‘How did you spend your day?’ Friends overseas, family members of the diaspora ask this question constantly. What is there to say? For several years, violence has spread throughout Haiti. It is true that it is worse in Pòtoprens [Port-au-Prince], but it affects everyone, everywhere. Kidnapping, murder, rape – crimes of all kinds have become so common that they are no longer news.
How are we living? Every morning we wake up and wonder what happened last night, what bad news will come. Insecurity and gang violence play Tetris with our lives: they make us run to take refuge in one neighborhood, only to have to move on again two weeks later because the violence has caught up to us. Every outing is a necessity: doctor, bank, work, stocking up on provisions, if you have the means. The streets are never safe: visiting a significant other is a risk, and it is inadvisable to stay late. Every time there’s a phone notification the pulse quickens: which family member or friend did they kidnap today? Every time we must go out, we sleep restlessly the night before. No sedative, no chamomile tea, no Valium can calm the mind. When we step outside, some of us talk non-stop to hide the fear, and some do not speak at all to keep from screaming Anmwey!, from crying out in pain or fear. We know that one day, inevitably, there will be the bad news that they have kidnapped a sister, a brother, a good friend.
The violence started a while ago. It’s been over five years since the corruption, incompetence and indifference of the people leading the country has caused this avalanche of government chaos, corruption, and anarchy. In a country where poverty wreaks havoc, where injustice and inequality are persistent and continuous, it is easy for gangs to organize, and for them to recruit women, men, and even young children. The Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK)leaders use this violence to keep the population in check. The gangs operate as they wish, but whenever there is a general protest by the Haitian people, the police are there with batons and tear gas to arrest and mistreat journalists and activists. Despite the public’s protests, despite several thousands of people taking to the streets to say NO, that they cannot continue to live in this situation, the authorities have never listened. Instead, gang activity has spread throughout the country. On July 7, 2021, the violence escalated to a point no one predicted when group of armed men stormed President Jovenel Moïse’s home and assassinated him. On this day the violence reached a different level, but it had already become entrenched across the country.
From late 2018 until 2020, three massacres took place in disadvantaged neighborhoods: La Salin, Bèlè and Site Solèy. The thugs who attacked these neighborhoods killed nearly 250 people, raped many women and children, burned down homes, and terrorized the inhabitants. Jovenel Moïse’s administration did not take any action to lead an effective investigation to identify the culprits. The international community continued to support the government, despite public protests, even as the situation degenerated. In addition to the violence, economic hardships have increased, and poverty has afflicted and become worse for many. By June of this year, almost two years after Ariel Henry assumed the title of a de facto prime minister, reoccurring massacres have taken place in underprivileged neighborhoods; thugs have killed over 2,000 people; over 2,000 people have been injured; tens of thousands have been displaced and forced to leave their homes; and over 1,000 people have been the victims of kidnapping. What these statistics do not say is that every one of these people is a mother, a child, a cousin, a niece, a father; every single person who was raped, kidnapped, killed was a life that was snatched away, leaving a family in pain and despair. And do not forget, these numbers only consider the victims they were able to count. Many people continue to die in the disenfranchised neighborhoods. Who is going to count those bodies?
Many Haitians, facing these problems, choose to leave the country, even if they would prefer not to. In the last two years, the number of people who have decided to leave has greatly increased. Haitians take boats, use fake paperwork when they are not awarded visas, take dangerous roads and brave death. It is in this context that the US President launched a special program that allows citizens of Haiti and three other countries to enter and work in the US for two years under the condition that they are legally sponsored by a person living in the country. The program is called ‘Humanitarian Parole’ but here we call it the ‘Biden Program’, or even just ‘Biden’.
The American president is now a Haitian Creole word, ‘Baydenn’. As in, ‘You know my cousin Mario? He’s a Biden, he left without even telling us.’ As in, ‘Can you Biden me?’ ‘Baydenn’ has infiltrated our lives; you hear the word at markets, in the street: it can become an insult, friends get heckled with it, but it can also be a promise mothers make to offspring, men make to women, godmothers make to godchildren. It’s used as black mail or coercion. It is present in church, in the lakou, when feeding and praying to the spirits, or inside a chapel.
Since the Biden program began, Haitians have been calling friends and relatives abroad to find sponsors. Crowds of people arrive at the immigration office, fighting to get passports, spending large amounts of money to buy exorbitant plane tickets. Racketeers are making money. Some in the diaspora have filled out applications for family members in haste. Whereas others have been less forthcoming, causing quarrels, jealousy and resentment. Some friends have cut ties. All kinds of people have left the country: merchants, professionals, students, many brains, many arms that could help have legally fled the country.
There are questions that should be asked regarding this program: what will happen after the two years are up? Even if the Biden program relieves some families, it will never be a solution for Haiti. The US government program is there to serve the interests of the US government before the interests of Haitians, and that is normal. No program from overseas will be a solution. The solution for a country is never outside the country; it should emerge, and grow and develop, from within. We can’t all be Baydenns. A whole nation cannot leave. The more people leave, the more the country declines. It’s a vicious circle, we’re going round and round.
In April 2023, the people launched the ‘Bwa Kale’ movement, they’ve taken it upon themselves to use machetes, tires, sticks and rocks to defend themselves against gang members. It is true that there have been fewer kidnappings since then, and from time to time the police seem less passive, but gangs continue to crowd the disadvantaged neighborhoods, and they continue to commit crime. Certain national roads remain blocked. Some hospitals still cannot function. The thugs want to remind the population that they are in control. Many have died by machete, and while some have been criminals, many innocent people have lost their lives too. How did we get here? The situation has degenerated because the authorities have failed to take responsibility to protect the citizens of the country.
In Pòtoprens these past months, itis the residents of Kafou-Fèy who are suffering most at the hands of these bandits. Since mid-August, just under 5,000 people have left their homes to sleep in public spaces – Channmas Square, Jeremi Square, and other places. On August 25, numerous members of the Evangelical Piscine de Bethesda church came together to march against gang violence at the initiative of the church’s priest, Pastor Marco. In response, a local gang opened fire with machine guns. In the clash that followed, several church members died. But, in the investigation that followed, the prosecutor summoned Pastor Marco, while no action was taken against the murderers. Even now videos of those killings continue to circulate on social networks.
In September, chaos broke out on the border with the Dominican Republic. Haitians living close to the border have started building a canal to use the Masak River, which runs through both countries, for irrigation. The Dominican government says Haitians have no right to do so, and has closed its border, as well as expelling many Haitians from the country. The closed border will make basic necessities more expensive in a country where every day, according to UNICEF, 4.9 million people do not have enough food. Amid these problems, Henry, the de facto prime minister, boarded a plane to attend the United Nations General Assembly where he asked for foreign intervention.
In the first week of October, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution to authorize a multinational force to land in the country allegedly to help control the actions of gangs. The United Nations made this decision despite many sectors of the country saying they disagree, despite this government lacking the authority to represent the population. We Haitian citizens know the damages already caused by foreign forces in the country.
Many questions need to be asked: Where did the guns and bullets that have reached Haiti come from? The country does not manufacture guns or bullets. Why do international bodies, and other foreign countries continue to support the de facto government while it refuses to prevent the violence from bandits?
How are we living? Violence can prevent us from looking at the bigger picture and make us prisoners of the mundane – on guard so we don’t catch stray bullets. We should not be prisoners of this manufactured violence, which keeps us in a state of despair and constant fear. We have to keep our capacity to reflect on the situation and continue to look for and find solutions that take into account the dire realities of violence, while addressing the deeper structural problems of our society.
The solution does not involve sending foreign soldiers to land in a country they do not know. The solution must go further than killing thugs. Rather, the solution requires that foreign governments stop butting into the country’s affairs. The solution is within. It demands that we, as Haitians, are not afraid to look properly at the problems, find a way to establish justice, break with the impunity, distribute our resources fairly, and gather our strength and dignity to establish a society that can work for us. It will not be an easy task, but it is possible. I still believe that.
Image © Clément Larrivé