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As US pushes police mission, sceptical Haitians seek to rebuild their country themselves 

‘Any time you see that unity in Haitian history, you see some advancement.’

This is a medium shot of Jean-Denis and Jonel Joseph as they look out to the right side of the image. Jess DiPierro Obert/TNH
Jean-Denis Petitpha and Jonel Joseph lead a neighbourhood association called Canapé-Vert Revèyè. Originally set up to help get children back into school, it now also works to keep the community safe from gangs.

The United States is driving forward plans for an international mission to help rein in Haiti's rampant gangs, but many Haitians are wary of foreign interventions and are already leading their own efforts to help their communities and rebuild their country.

Marie-Flore Lafontant Chipps, co-founder of Summits Education, a Haitian-led educational nonprofit, is one of them. 

Until recently, Lafontant Chipps travelled weekly from the capital, Port-au-Prince, to the Central Plateau region, where her NGO runs 40 schools in remote communities. She did it despite the threat of 400 Mawozo, the gang controlling the Mòn Kabrit mountain passage. Every time she and her staff visited their schools – which serve more than 10,000 students – she would rent a bus and pay gang members $75 each way to cross.

Since 400 Mawozo opened fire on a public minibus on 18 February, killing 10 people in one of a string of recent attacks, buses have been unable to pass, and Lafontant Chipps is now waiting impatiently for the route to reopen.

“There’s no way I can stay here and not go,” she told The New Humanitarian. “If we weren’t there, those schools would be closed and the teachers would not be paid. We’re doing the work that the government should have done. We go where they don’t.” 

A driver for Summits Education was kidnapped a week before the minibus attack by another gang in Port-au-Prince, part of a surge of kidnappings and rapes that has left millions of Haitians facing constant distress as they go about their daily lives. He was released unharmed nine days later. Others aren’t so lucky.

A group of people are see gathering and smiling in a garden.
Jess DiPierro Obert/TNH
Marie-Flore Lafontant Chipps, co-founder of Summits Education, talks with her staff. She has had to suspend trips to the schools her NGO serves in remote areas out of Port-au-Prince due to recent attacks.

Since the July 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moïse, Haiti has fallen into a spiral of violence and lawlessness, with more than 8,400 people killed last year alone. 

The Caribbean nation has no elected government officials and its police force is overwhelmed. An estimated 200 criminal groups are contesting various parts of the country, with half of those said to be controlling some 80% of Port-au-Prince.

The proliferation of gangs has been linked to the absence of economic opportunities for Haiti’s youth – more than half of its population of 11.5 million is under the age of 24.

Although Haiti became the world’s first Black republic in 1804, it was forced to pay billions to France in order to secure its freedom. That crippling debt – combined with decades of dictatorships, natural disasters, political and environmental mismanagement, a long US military occupation, and a debilitating US trade embargo – has prevented Haiti from making economic headway.

New insurrection adds to the urgency

This year, the situation has been compounded by violent protests calling for the resignation of acting prime minister Ariel Henry. These have been supported by Guy Philippe, a former police chief, senator, and paramilitary leader who played a key role in the 2004 rebellion that ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Philippe was released in September from prison in the United States, where he was serving a nine-year sentence for taking bribes from drug traffickers. He returned to Haiti in November.

Five members of the National Agency for Protected Areas (BSAP), an armed environmental protection unit with close links to Philippe, were killed earlier this month in clashes with police as protests paralysed the country, making it even harder for humanitarian organisations to reach those in need.

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed again for the rapid deployment of a UN-authorised Multinational Security Support mission, pledging $200 million to help with “planning, with intelligence, with airlift capacity, communications, and medical equipment and services”.

Kenya has offered to lead the mission. But Haitian and Kenyan authorities are still working on an agreement to bypass a ruling last month from the Kenyan High Court blocking the deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police officers. Several other countries have pledged money or personnel: Benin has reportedly offered 2,000 troops.

Haitians have mixed feelings about the mission. While some see no other way to go forward, others remember controversial US and UN interventions in the past and would prefer a Haitian-led solution that addresses the root causes of the country's problems.

“I have never seen any change [with a foreign intervention],” Lafontant Chipps told The New Humanitarian. “There should be a good plan with the government and the international community this time. You have all these ministers going to work and doing nothing but waiting to get paid. Let's restructure and have a vision and defend the needs of Haitians."

‘We have a moral obligation’

Haiti’s escalating violence has also driven mass migration towards the United States. US authorities encountered 1.4 times as many Haitians along the US-Mexico border in 2023 than in 2022. Among those who stay, more than 314,000 people have been displaced by gang violence, 170,000 of them children. Around 44% of the population suffers from acute hunger.

For those trying to continue doing crucial work for their communities, working around worsening gang violence is more challenging than ever.

Dr. Christophe Millien, the Haitian chief medical officer of the Partners In Health (PIH) University Hospital of Mirebalais in central Haiti, was working early on 26 September 2023 when a gang burst into the health centre and opened fire.

No one was killed, but more than half the patients and many staff members fled, while shards of glass ended up at the feet of patients in intensive care and next to premature babies in one of the country's few specialist neonatal units. 

The 350-bed facility, which is still only operating at around 80% capacity, shrunk to just 30 beds for the month following the attack and had to rely on air ambulances to transport staff and emergency patients because using the gang-controlled roads became too dangerous.

“We receive patients from all over the country risking their lives to go to the hospital to find care. We have a moral obligation to continue to support them,” said Millien, who stayed to help while his family left to live in Canada.

To keep operating, the hospital provided the staff with housing and food, and hired police officers for security. The objective, Millien said, was “to calm down the anxiety of the personnel” to make sure they would come back to work. 

Millien is not alone in feeling this sense of duty, and in carrying on despite the risks.

Rosy Auguste Ducena, programme manager for the National Human Rights Defence Network (RNDDH), released a report on 18 August 2023 about gang attacks in the capital’s Carrefour Feuilles area. Two hours later, her office gates were shot up. Attacks in the area ended up killing 104 people and leading 5,000 to flee.

Auguste Ducena works with victims of human rights violations, women who’ve been raped by gangs, and displaced people. She helps record and file their cases to the Haitian judicial system.

“[Staying] is the biggest commitment I can make, so that my children can live in their country without problems,” she told The New Humanitarian. 

Despite the increasing threats, Auguste Ducena still goes to her office. In September 2022, she testified as a civil society leader before the US Senate. She asked for support for Haitian-led solutions, for more measures to fight corruption and to stop arms smuggling from the United States, and for help vetting the police, among other things.

For Auguste Ducena, the idea of restoring security just to prop up the current elite is a recipe for more of the same. “Today, our biggest fear is that this mission will be used by those governing the country to make people believe, especially the international community, that there is enough security in Haiti to go straight to elections and then go back to another political crisis,” she said.

‘The security of the nation is the responsibility of the nation’

Velina Charlier also testified before that US Senate hearing. She is a human rights activist and a member of Nou Pap Dòmi, a Haitian civil society movement advocating for social justice, anti-corruption, and accountable governance.

Despite threats to her life, Charlier said Haiti is her home. “I made peace with the idea of dying a long time ago,” she told The New Humanitarian. “I don’t have the luxury of being scared. I just hope.”

She said she is against the deployment of an international support force because it won’t address what’s at the core of Haiti’́s insecurity: impunity.

An armed solider walks down a road. He wears a red face covering.
Jess DiPierro Obert/TNH
A member of the G9 gang stands guard in the Delmas 4 area of Port-au-Prince. Almost 100 gangs vie for control of different neighbourhoods and strategic crossroads in the capital.

“There is no nation in the entire world that has built its security from outsourcing the force. The security of the nation is the responsibility of the nation,” she said.

To address impunity, clean politicians, the business sector, civil society, and the diaspora – who contribute more than 23% of the country’s GDP in remittances – must work together, participate politically, and educate a new generation of politicians, she said, adding: “You cannot build a nation if you don’t have citizens that understand their duties but also their rights.”

‘We are able to defend ourselves with other things than guns’

Fighting for their right to live peacefully is what Jonel Joseph and Jean-Denis Petitpha have been doing since the night of 24 April 2023, when around 3am they heard gunfire ring through their southern Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Canapé-Vert.

They lead a neighbourhood association called Canapé-Vert Revèyè (Awaken Canapé-Vert), which was set up in 2000 to raise money to send children back to school. Since that night, it also works to keep the community safe from gangs.

"We were hearing a lot of gunfire… We were calling each other, banging iron so that everyone would wake up,” said Joseph. “It was a chain reaction where everybody acted to protect their neighbourhood."

When the bullets ran out at around 6am that day, a group of residents turned violent. They lynched 14 gang suspects, taking them from the police. These events sparked an anti-gang vigilante movement called Bwa Kale, which has killed more than 300 alleged gang members, according to the UN.

“We don’t have a government. It’s absent. So every person has to take care of themselves, their families, their community and environment...”

Canapé-Vert Revèyè – which defines itself as a peaceful organisation – tries to defend the neighbourhood in other ways. Every night, its members make barricades out of cars, rocks, and trees to prevent gangs from entering. The next morning, they remove them so that women going to market and others on their way to work can pass.

"Our mission is to combat poverty and fight for peace and security in order to have a better Haiti," said Petitpha, who owns a hotel in the area and receives displaced people free of charge.

“We don’t have a government. It’s absent,” added Joseph. “So every person has to take care of themselves, their families, their community and environment... Our ancestors used vodou to free themselves. We are able to defend ourselves with other things than guns.”

‘You don't leave when things are bad’

In the southeastern beach town of Jacmel, Rachelle Salnave is also part of a close-knit community. A Haitian-American filmmaker born and raised in Harlem, her parents left during the 1957-1986 Duvalier dictatorship, which preceded Aristide.

Salnave moved to Haiti in March 2023 after getting her dual citizenship. She was asked to take over as executive director of the Artists Institute, a film production and audio-music engineering school supported by celebrities such as Susan Sarandon and Francis Ford Coppola.

The school has been closed for the past year, but Salnave’s hope is for it to reopen as soon as possible.

“You don't leave when things are bad,” she said.

Salnave’s biggest challenge has been to find partnerships willing to fund technical training and equipment. Once boasting a staff of 60, she now works with 13 people only. Out of the 44 students who were there originally, only 32 are still around.

She references the motto on the Haitian flag – L’union fait la force (unity makes strength) – to explain what drives her: “Any time you see that [unity] in Haitian history, you see some advancement.”

Edited by Daniela Mohor and Andrew Gully.

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