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Haiti descends further into chaos after mass lynching

April 28, 2023

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for international forces to be dispatched to quell the violence blighting Haiti.

A father flees fighting with his child in his arms as riot police look on in Port-au-Prince
A father and child flee fighting as armed forces look on in Port-au-PrinceImage: Odelyn Joseph/AP/picture alliance

Annalisa Lombardo, Haiti country director at Welthungerhilfe, a non-governmental aid agency, has been living in the Caribbean nation for 15 years. Asked why she is still in Haiti considering the many crises it has faced over the years, she told DW: "I call this country home, fell in love with its people, they are my people, moun pam, as they say in Creole, and I am not ready to turn my back on them."

Lombardo did, however, close the Welthungerhilfe office in the capital, Port-au-Prince, earlier this week for security reasons.

"I decided that, as a matter of precaution, none of our colleagues should take the risk to traveling the road," she told DW.

"Taking the road used to be risky because of kidnappings, hold ups, stray bullets when there are clashes between gang members and the police, but lately — as the tension has grown, also because if you happen to cut through a neighborhood that is not yours and somebody believe[s] you look suspicious — you risk being lynched for no further reasons."

UN issues stark warning

Over a dozen suspected gang members were lynched in Port-au-Prince by a mob on Monday. The attack happened in public and in broad daylight. According to Haitian media, an enraged mob forced individuals off a bus before stoning them and ultimately burning them alive.

The incident marks yet another level of escalation to the violence that has rocked the Haiti for months. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has gone so far as to call for international forces to be dispatched to Haiti to restore order. In the latest UN report on Haiti, Guterres even warned that insecurity in Port-au-Prince "has reached levels comparable to countries in armed conflict."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sits at a desk holding papers with a microphone and more papers in front of him
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres suggested sending international forces to Haiti months agoImage: Fatih Aktas/AA/picture alliance

Lombardo sees no way out of the crisis. Several weeks ago, Welthungerhilfe in Haiti joined other organizations such as Care, Plan International and World Vision in publishing a desperate appeal calling on the international community to send help.

Lombardo told DW they want to see humanitarian intervention. "The re-establishment of the state of law is a necessity, she said, adding that the security of the city neighborhoods, of strategic points such as the fuel terminals and major roads, also needs to be ensured."

A desperately poor country

Lombardo can rattle off countless figures that illustrate the full extent of the misery that is blighting the impoverished country. Nearly half of Haiti's 11.5 million people depend on humanitarian assistance. Some 90% of Haitians in rural areas live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, with almost one in four living in extreme poverty.

Cholera has flared up again, too, with 670 deaths and 35,000 suspected cases so far — mostly among children. Only about half of households in rural areas have access to clean drinking water, and open defecation is still practiced by about a third of the rural population, exposing people to significant health risks.

As if the humanitarian situation were not worrying enough, the country is experiencing ever more extreme violence. Marauding gangs have a chokehold on Port-au-Prince in particular.

The UN's Special Representative for Haiti, Maria Isabel Salvador, even flew to New York to brief the Security Council on the current situation and present the UN report. 

Gang violence is surging at "an alarming rate in areas previously considered relatively safe" in Port-au-Prince, she said at the briefing on Wednesday. Compared to the first quarter of 2022, criminal incidents — homicide, rape, kidnappings and lynching — more than doubled in the same period in 2023 to 1,647, she said, citing figures from Haitian police and the UN.

According to the report, rooftop snipers "frequently fired at people in their residences or in the streets." It also cites attack in which a 16-year-old girl was raped by multiple gang members in broad daylight, one of dozens of documented attacks.

The report finds children are often abducted near schools, then forced to shuttle munitions to warring gang members, load weapons or carry out attacks.

The gang violence is also affecting people's access to essential services. For example, the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, which serves about 700,000 people, had to suspend services two months ago due to security risks, according to the UN report, released on April 14.

Around 130,000 internally displaced people are currently scattered throughout the capital city, the report says, which also documents the fates of hundreds of pregnant and nursing women deported back to Haiti after fleeing east to the Dominican Republic.

Gangs in charge

In 2010, Haiti endured what remains the most devastating earthquake of the 21st century. According to official figures, 316,000 people lost their lives. Today, the country finds itself in yet another catastrophic situation: One that started when President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in his private villa in July 2021. The interim government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who also serves as acting president, lacks popular support and protests have become a daily occurrence.

Moreover, seven large gang associations have banded together to take advantage of the resulting power vacuum, according to Haitian authorities. The UN estimates gangs control 60% of Port-au-Prince whereas locals say they are in charge everywhere. The situation led Henry to call for an armed foreign intervention six months ago.

A man (Prime Minister Ariel Henry) scratches his head and looks down at his notes as he stands at a lector, with at least four people behind him
Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who also serves as acting president, lacks popular supportImage: Richard Pierrin/AFP

"The latest president in particular has been fiercely opposed during his entire mandate. The president, on his side, did very little to find a compromise, but, on the other side, he had a quite diverse, incoherent and anarchic movement opposing him," said Lombardo from Welthungerhilfe. "Unfortunately, that kind of movement cannot express clear leadership, on the contrary, its anarchy opened the way to a common practice in Haiti, to arm gangs to impose oneself, to the point that the situation went out of control."

Nation breaking up

Lombardo said she has been unable to get much sleep lately because she is repeatedly woken up by nightly gunfire. Such fighting has almost become the new normal in Port-au-Prince. Not long ago, Lombardo received a video showing a primary school near the capital whose walls riddled with bullets and with students lying on the floor in complete panic.

A dark-haired woman with glasses, necklace and a light sweater (Annalisa Lombardo) looks into the camera
Annalisa Lombardo has lived in Haiti for 15 yearsImage: Deutsche Welthungerhilfe

Hait's future looks bleak, Lombardo said. "I feel we are already racing full-speed towards my worst-case scenario. Somebody has already used the noun 'Somalia-ization' to describe the current situation in which we witness the process of territorial fragmentation and a government's failure to establish authority — with all the consequences that has for poverty and human rights violations."

This article was translated from German.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.