Haitians struggle to survive, searching for food, water and safety as gang violence chokes the capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — As the sun sets, a burly man bellows into a megaphone as a curious crowd gathers around him. Next to him is a small cardboard box containing several banknotes worth 10 Haitian gourds – about 7 US cents.

“Everyone gives what he has!” the man shouts as he grabs the arms and hands of people entering a neighborhood in the capital Port-au-Prince that has been targeted by violent gangs.

The community recently voted to purchase a metal barricade and install it themselves, in an effort to protect residents from the ongoing violence that killed or injured more than 2,500 people in Haiti between January and March.

“Every day I wake up and find a dead body,” said Noune-Carme Manoune, an immigration officer.

Life in Port-au-Prince has become a game of survival, pushing Haitians to new limits as they try to stay safe and alive, while gangs overwhelm police and the government remains largely absent. Some install metal barricades. Others hit the gas hard as they drive near gang-controlled areas. The few who can afford it are stockpiling water, food, money and medicine, supplies of which have dwindled since the main international airport closed in early March. The country’s largest seaport has been largely paralyzed by marauding gangs.

“People living in the capital are locked up, with nowhere to go,” Philippe Branchat, head of the International Organization for Migration in Haiti, said in a recent statement. “The capital is surrounded by armed groups and danger. It is a city under siege.”

Phones often ping with warnings of gunfire, kidnappings and deadly shootings, and some supermarkets have so many armed guards they resemble small police stations.

Gang attacks used to only occur in certain areas, but now they can happen anywhere, anytime. Staying home doesn’t guarantee safety: A man playing with his daughter at home was shot in the back by a stray bullet. Others have been killed.

Schools and gas stations are closed and fuel is sold on the black market for $9 a gallon, about three times the official price. Banks have banned customers from withdrawing more than a hundred dollars a day, and checks that used to take three days now take a month or more to clear. Police officers have to wait weeks for their payout.

“Everyone is under stress,” says Isidore Gédéon, a 38-year-old musician. “After the prison escape, people don’t trust anyone anymore. The state has no control.”

Gangs that control an estimated 80% of Port-au-Prince launched coordinated attacks on February 29, targeting critical state infrastructure. They set fire to police stations, shot up the airport and stormed Haiti’s two largest prisons, freeing more than 4,000 prisoners.

At the time, Prime Minister Ariel Henry was visiting Kenya to push for the UN-backed deployment of a police force. Henry remains locked out of Haiti, and a presidential transition council charged with selecting the country’s next prime minister and cabinet could be sworn in as soon as this week. Henry has pledged to resign once a new leader is installed.

Few believe this will end the crisis. It’s not just the gangs unleashing violence; Haitians have embraced a vigilante movement known as “bwa farmers,” which has killed hundreds of suspected gang members or their associates.

“There are certain communities where I can’t go because everyone is afraid of everyone,” Gédéon said. “You can be innocent and end up dead.”

In one month alone, more than 95,000 people have fled Port-au-Prince as gangs invade communities, burn homes and kill people in areas controlled by their rivals.

Those fleeing by bus to Haiti’s southern and northern regions risk being raped or killed as they pass through gang-controlled areas where gunmen have opened fire.

According to the IOM, the violence in the capital has left about 160,000 people homeless.

“This is hell,” says Nelson Langlois, producer and cinematographer.

Langlois, his wife and three children spent two nights on the roof of their house as gangs invaded the neighborhood.

“Over and over again we watched it to see when we could escape,” he remembers.

Forced to separate due to the lack of shelter, Langlois lives in a Vodou temple and his wife and children are elsewhere in Port-au-Prince.

Like most people in the city, Langlois usually stays indoors. Long gone are the days of football matches on dusty roads and nights drinking Prestige beer in bars playing hip-hop, reggae or African music.

“It’s an open-air prison,” Langlois said.

The violence has also forced businesses, government agencies and schools to close, leaving dozens of Haitians jobless.

Manoune, the government immigration officer, said she makes money selling purified water because she is out of work as deportations are stalled.

Meanwhile, Gédéon said he no longer plays drums for a living, noting that bars and other venues are closed. He sells small plastic bags of water on the street and has become a handyman, installing fans and repairing appliances.

Even students are joining the workforce as the crisis deepens poverty in Haiti.

Sully, a 10th grade student whose school was closed nearly two months ago, stood on a street corner in the community of Pétion-Ville, selling gasoline he bought on the black market.

“You have to be careful,” said Sully, who asked that his last name be withheld for security reasons. “It’s safer in the morning.”

He sells about five gallons a week, which brings in about $40 for his family, but he can’t afford to join his classmates who are learning remotely.

“Online classes are for people who are luckier than me, who have more money,” Sully said.

The European Union last week announced the launch of a humanitarian airlift from the Central American country of Panama to Haiti. Five flights landed in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s only functioning airport, carrying 62 tons of medicine, water, emergency shelter equipment and other essential supplies.

But there is no guarantee that critical items will get to those who need them most. Many Haitians are still trapped in their homes, unable to buy or forage for food amid whizzing bullets.

Aid agencies say nearly 2 million Haitians are on the brink of famine, including more than 600,000 children.

Yet people find ways to survive.

Back in the neighborhood where residents are installing a metal barricade, sparks fly as a man cuts metal while others shovel and mix cement. They are well on their way and hope to complete the project soon.

Others remain skeptical, citing reports of gangs jumping into loaders and other heavy equipment to tear down police stations and, more recently, metal barricades.