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Haiti: Violence and displacement in the capital, yet provincial work continues

Photo taken from an elevated angle of a tin-roofed, cinder-block complex of buildings with people and vehicles.

CARE Haiti distributes cash to food-security program participants at Mont-Organisé in Haiti’s Nord-Est (Northeast) Department in April 2023. Photo: CARE Haiti

CARE Haiti distributes cash to food-security program participants at Mont-Organisé in Haiti’s Nord-Est (Northeast) Department in April 2023. Photo: CARE Haiti

A long-simmering crisis in Haiti has escalated over the last few weeks, resulting in unprecedented spikes in gang violence which have shut down the country’s airports, disrupted movement of people and goods, and displaced over 362,000 people inside the country, including 33,000 newly displaced.

CARE has worked in Haiti since 1954, and — despite considerable security challenges — is continuing to work today, targeting extremely poor and vulnerable people and communities. The recent crisis has expanded armed gangs’ control of the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince, to roughly 85 percent of the entire region. The main office of CARE in Haiti has been temporary shut down and re-opened with reduced personnel and working hours. Field offices across the country are continuing their critical work.

Abner*, a Haitian national and CARE project manager, works in one of the field offices, in Ouanaminthe, near the country’s northern coast and the Dominican Republic border.  There, he oversees a food security program that provides cash payments to those in need as well as nutrition training and malnutrition screenings. Abner’s office also runs an agricultural cash-for-work program where participants clean up roads, clean out pathways, and clear rivers and riverbanks for farmers, in exchange for tools and cash payments.

On March 18, he took an hour to give a real-time perspective from a country where 5.5 million need humanitarian assistance, with at least 1.4 million people facing emergency levels of hunger, just one step away from famine-like conditions, and there has been an unprecedented spike in gender-based violence against women and girls.

Below are his words, edited for clarity:

Abner*, CARE Haiti:

“We are facing a major humanitarian crisis in Haiti; it’s ongoing, and we don’t even have the means to measure the scale of it. We can only imagine some of it, because in many of these areas it is just impossible to reach because of gang activities.

Over fifty percent of the staff in field offices are from Port-au-Prince, including myself, where I have family. My mother, who is 74, is in the family house alone, while my sister had to migrate to Canada and I’m working away. Most staff working in the field share the same situation as I. This has a toll on us, as we constantly worry about our beloved ones trapped in Port-au-Prince. In the office here in the North, we are about 13 staff.

Everyone has someone close – a husband, a wife, children and let’s not forget our colleagues – in Port-au-Prince. So, you can imagine how difficult this has been. I have some staff complaining about insomnia, not being able to sleep at night, as they are in a constant state of fear and stress.

These are common issues that are raised; the stress level keeps going higher.

Just consider anyone in Haiti right now at risk — regardless of their social status, their revenue, whatever. Because, even if you have money at the bank, in many regions, especially around Port-au-Prince, some banks are shut down or shutting down.

Outdoor photo of a man working on a smartphone and laptop computer at a table, with others seated and standing in the background.
Haiti Pay registers participants for the "Lajan Cash" mobile pay platform in June 2023, alongside CARE, in Loiseau, Fort Liberté, Haiti. Photo: CARE Haiti

A colleague is in touch with former colleagues who are telling her they’re stranded at home with no food for several days, going several days without food, unable to eat, and in some cases some of them had to go to drinking urine. Just imagine how difficult things must be for people to commit to doing that. 

Two CARE Haiti colleagues are now stuck outside of Port-au-Prince while they were on field missions. One is in the south while the other is presently in our field office as he was supporting us some data collection activities on our cash-for-work interventions. They still have no idea when they will get back to Port-au-Prince where they are both based and live.

Bad news by the minute

We have a driver here who happens to come from the same neighborhood where I used to live, where my mom is right now. And many times, he’ll be driving, and his wife will be calling him right there. And you know, just having a phone call from Port-au-Prince right now is very stressful, because you never know — we’re getting bad news by the minute.

There’s basically no way for us to go back to the capital. Last time I traveled back home was maybe two months ago, and I went by air, from the main city in the northern region, Cap-Haïtien, which is about an hour and a half from where we are. That’s how I went to visit my mom for the holidays.

Some of the staff used to travel by land. But this is no longer an option or allowed by CARE. It’s been months since gang activity has prevented any safe travel by land. Going by bus — it’s extremely dangerous. Now that both airports have been shut down, there’s no means to go to Port-au-Prince. My mom can’t get out. I can’t get in. That’s the situation.

We feel like we’re all stuck. It’s as if we feel like we're all somehow a bunch of refugees living in our own country.

There have been attacks on the country’s main port terminal in Port-au-Prince, which is one of the main entry points for food in Haiti… the other means for us to buy food and other industrial goods is by the inland borders. But the borders with the Dominican Republic have been shut down as well… So now we’re pretty much stranded.

We can’t move within the country from one region to the other, and getting supply is becoming quite an issue.

Mecejour, an elder living near Mont-Organisé, Haiti, is no longer able to work as he used to. He plans to use his cash transfer for food expenses. Photos: CARE Haiti

Work proceeding – but for how long?

We were about halfway into a training of mother-to-mother group leaders until last week when we had to stop to reduce potential risks to staff and project participants due to the situation unfolding in Port-au-Prince, and we only resumed the training last Friday.

Uncertainty is not a good environment in which to perform any kind of programming.

We have some setbacks in the programming and setting up our calendar and going back and dealing with a lot of delays, which has been a challenge, especially where the population we were reaching were already the most vulnerable. In spite of these difficulties, we are doing our best to stay on track.

Several people gather around a woman in orange shirt counting out cash.
Food-security program participants in Mont Organisé, Haiti receive cash distributions in April 2023. Photo: CARE Haiti

It has been a challenge to get supply because many things are brought directly from Port-au-Prince. For example, the entire country depends on fuel coming from there, so you can easily imagine the logistical nightmare it is just to keep operations running.

It’s not getting easier, considering the supply gaps that are showing up and as prices are going up, especially like motorcycle rides, because this is the main means of transportation for people without resources. When transportation goes up, when fuel goes up, it has an impact on everything, including food.

So now we’re feeling the pressure from the people, they’re asking: ‘OK, so when’s the next round?’ They’re more and more eager to get the next round of payment.

We have also had issues getting tools for the work program from our local suppliers. All of it is imported either from the Dominican Republic or from abroad but going through Port-au-Prince. So now, having two of these access points shut down, it is more and more of an issue.

‘Give us the means, and we will deliver’

The humanitarian needs are immense because food and shelter are very much needed amongst displaced people by the spike of violence, as we speak, and unfortunately, the capacity for local actors has been seriously challenged because they are coping with the operational restraints.

And let’s not forget about the situation of women having to do with all of that, but also with sexual assault and abuse which has gone out of control, and the gangs are very much involved in a lot of that.

As hard as the situation is for all of us, we’re still committed to doing our job because we love what we do; we’re dedicated to it. And we understand the needs because all of us are national staff at this office.

Give us the means, and we will make sure we deliver, because we know how to manage those complicated situations.

We wouldn’t like to say we’ve been there before, but we’ve seen very hard situations in the past, and we have been able to deliver and to perform.

A group of people in a line leading to a table
Program participants line up for Sept. 2023 cash transfers in Bois de Laurence, in Haiti’s Northeast Department. Photo: CARE Haiti

Right now, we can only focus on the violence. But what about the aftermath of it? What about the hunger? What about the famine? What about the people not having the means? Just imagine being sick right now and needing a medical facility when you can barely eat.

If we know anything it’s that the Haitian population is resilient. It’s been tested over and over. And for some reason we usually find a way to get up, even though we need a hand right now. But we just want to be able to support ourselves — we just want to be living in our country like everyone else.

We’re going to need the help of all the friends of Haiti’s. And this is why I still have hope because we still have people committed and dedicated, despite their own personal situation.

One of the crises we’re dealing with in Haiti is a crisis of trust. Distrust is overwhelming. People are losing trust. Every kind of organization working in Haiti is facing this situation.

I have very dedicated staff that were putting their fists on the table, saying we must perform no matter what, because we have so many people depending on it more than ever — because, as I said, the situation is not getting any better. Things are not improving. Most of the population is at risk, especially the most vulnerable, especially children, and especially in this context, women as well.

Everyone at risk

I had a visit from a past friend. Just before that I had a phone call from people asking for help, because they’re in a very, very difficult situation. I’m talking about professionals. These are people that didn’t need assistance before. I’m talking about people that are in the middle class or used to be.

And I know many situations like that, let alone the people that were already living under the poverty line.

Just understand that every Haitian that you've ever met or know that lives in Haiti today needs your help.

We’re trying to keep operations running and going around all types of bottlenecks that we have to deal with because we are dedicated to our craft and supporting and helping people.

Cleanta lives in Savanette, a remote village of Mont Organisé, Haiti, where she is the primary caregiver for her six grandchildren. She used her April 2023 cash distribution for food and clothing for them, also allowing herself to spend some time with them rather than leaving them with others to earn money working. Photos: CARE Haiti

What Haiti needs now 

At this moment it is critical to secure humanitarian access, be it corridors or other avenues, to clear movement in and out of the capital city and other regions that are in great need. The border region as well as facilities such as airports and ports still operating, notably in the northern region, must be used as entry points for much-needed aid supplies and other critical goods. Water will also come in handy as many of the affected populations don’t have access to running water, let alone potable water.  

Shelter for displaced people is another priority as many are fleeing their homes to escape violence created by the armed gangs. Solidarity – in the form of donations – is what Haiti needs most urgently, as political solutions have yet to be found for an end to the violence.

Haiti is under attack and local police forces appear to be overwhelmed by the gang’s firepower and numbers. If nothing is done very soon, not only are we facing a major humanitarian catastrophe, but we can also expect a massive migration crisis both inside and outside of Haiti’s borders.

The time to act is now, or it will be too late for us Haitians who are currently going through this living hell.”

*Name changed

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