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Haiti: Violence, Poverty, Uprising

05/01/2023
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    A girl looks out from her house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Reuters/Ricardo Arduengo)
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    Haitians flee from a violent protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (AP/Odelyn Joseph)
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    Jimmy Cherizier, also known as “Barbecue,” is a powerful gang leader. (AP/Matias Delacroix)
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    Christina Julien does her homework in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Christina is one of thousands in the capital who fled homes due to violence. (AP/Odelyn Joseph)
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    A Haitian eats a bowl of traditional soup joumou. (AP/Odelyn Joseph)
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    Dr. Michel Jovania poses with young patients at the Fontaine Hospital Center. (AP/Odelyn Joseph)
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Democracy is withering in Haiti. The government crumbles. The ruthless vie for power. Disease, earthquakes, and hurricanes hammer an island overrun by violent gangs.

From 1791 to 1804, Haiti underwent one of the world’s largest slave uprisings. The island nation successfully threw off its French rulers. Formerly enslaved persons founded a free state. Many call the Haitian Revolt a defining moment in human rights history.

In return, France slapped Santo Domingo—the island’s name at the time—with a huge bill. The money was supposed to pay former slaveholders. Without payment, France refused to recognize the new country.

So Haiti paid . . . until 1947! As much as 80% of the nation’s revenues went toward this “debt.” The payments bankrupted Haiti—and created a cycle of political turmoil and poverty. It remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

A Nation Marked by Disaster

In the 1970s and ’80s, Haiti endured a bloody dictatorship, devastating weather, and cholera. Haiti sits on a geological fault line, making it prone to earthquakes. It lies between the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, in the path of hurricanes.

Haiti’s desperate poor clear-cut forests for timber and to create farmland. As a result, rains wash away precious topsoil. Mudslides and famine result. Contaminated water spreads disease among the people.

The latest crisis came after the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Current Prime Minister Ariel Henry emerged as the country’s leader.

But he has competition.

Gangs on the Rise

Haiti’s nearly 200 gangs leapt on the post-Moïse chaos. The United Nations estimates that gangs control 60% of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. Some say that number is closer to 100%.

Haitians walk the streets in fear. Kidnappings are common. Gangs fund their wars with ransoms. One estimate says about four people are kidnapped every day in Haiti.

Prime Minister Henry requested military intervention for his country. Some nations gave money. But so far, none have put boots on the ground.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Cherizier zips through Port-au-Prince on a motorcycle, flanked by masked men wielding weapons.

Cherizier is internationally recognized as Haiti’s most powerful and feared gang leader. The UN cited him for “serious human rights abuses.”

Last year, he ordered a fuel blockade. Businesses ground to a halt. The blockade paralyzed Haitian hospitals during a cholera outbreak.

Cherizier claims he’s protesting inflation, corruption, and injustice. “I’m just carrying out a social fight,” he says.

Life in Chaos

Henry barely holds Haiti’s tattered government together. He’s pledged for a year and a half to hold general elections. Voters are still waiting. Haitian Senator Patrice Dumont says gang activity would thwart elections anyway.

Civilians like nine-year-old Christina Julien pay the price.

The smiling girl with dreams of being a doctor wakes next to her parents and two sisters on her aunt’s porch floor. She’s one of at least 155,000 people in Port-Au-Prince who fled homes due to violence.

“When there were shootings, I couldn’t go in the yard. I couldn’t go see my friends,” Christina says.

In October, armed men stormed her neighborhood. Christina saw guns and ran home. She told her mother, Sandra Sainteluz, “Mommy we have to leave.”

They took refuge in the home of family in another part of the city.

“I left with just two bags,” Sainteluz recalls. She struggles to care for her family.

The sacrifice is worth it, the mother of three says. She’s heard of kidnappings of Christina’s classmates, $40,000 ransom payments, and deaths outside their former home.

At least here they feel safer, she says—then adds, for now.

In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. — Psalm 4:8

Why? Scripture warns that the nations will rage. Human sin has put Haiti in dire circumstances. But God’s peace is everlasting and not dependent on weather, wealth, or human actions.

 

Feeding a Tradition

Even in chaos, soup joumou remains a Haitian constant. The pumpkin-beef-carrots-cabbage stew is a source of national pride.

During the colonial period, enslaved persons weren’t allowed to eat the spicy dish. After the Revolt, the dish gained the nickname “independence soup.” It is traditional Sunday morning fare. For many Haitians, it provides connection. Traditions help maintain culture.

“It makes people proud,” says Wilfred Cadet, slurping soup joumou. “No matter what happens [in Haiti], the soup is going to stay around.”

 

Preserving Health amid Crisis

As hospitals close in Port-Au-Prince, one stands in a densely populated and poverty-stricken area of Haiti’s capital. Cité Soliel is the geographical heart of the Port-Au-Prince gang wars. It’s also the site of Fontaine Hospital Center—one of the last operating medical centers in one of the world’s most lawless places. Citizens live in dire need of medical care. Fontaine is their sole place of refuge. Cholera outbreaks, gang-related wounds, and starvation fill the halls with patients.

Millen Siltant waits in a hallway, her hands nervously clutching paperwork over her pregnant belly. Usually, the mother-to-be would make an hour-long trek for a prenatal checkup. But her clinic closed. Fontaine is her only option.

Fear of violence prevents many expectant moms from leaving home even to seek medical help. Hospital employees too put themselves in jeopardy to serve the needy. Danger keeps staff from leaving the safety of the hospital. Instead, many dwell in dorms on site as they continue to serve.

Assistance doesn’t end with desperate mothers.

“We don’t pick sides,” says hospital director Loubents Jean Baptist. He refers to the hospital’s policy of caring for anyone in need, regardless of whether gang activity caused that need. When a bullet-wounded gangster arrives, he simply checks his guns as if they were coats. Criminals receive the same medical care as any patient.

Cité Soliel overflows with desperation. Families bake mud pies to satisfy hunger while gangs clash in public. But in a place that may seem abandoned by God, He placed a sanctuary: Hospital Fontaine.

Guest reporting by Lily Porter, 11th grade student at Asheville Christian Academy