On March 30, as the plane made its final descent into the airport, I observed the clearly defined lines of Dorval’s streetlights; the evidence of clear air was already apparent even before the plane landed. The flight, direct from the smog-filled air of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was bringing me back from two weeks of nightly gunfire to the safe, calm province of Quebec. I have travelled to Haiti a total of nine times in the past six years, but this trip clearly showed me how my friends, acquaintances, and even the school children in that region live with terror daily.
Before embarking on this latest trip, I spoke to Father Roosevelt, the parish priest at St. Jude, concerning the safety of a visit to Port-au-Prince at this time. He felt it would be safe if I restricted my movements to the rectory, school, and church.
None of the Canadian members of Fondation du Haut-Saint-Laurent pour L’éducation en Haïti had been to Haiti in more than two years. The foundation has continued to finance the running of the library at the parish school (École St. Paul) and to sponsor the educational costs for the 20 girls who reside at KC Village in a second location, Tabarre, a district in the western part of Port-au-Prince. During each trip to Haiti, foundation members also complete menstrual health education sessions for schoolgirls and distribute Days for Girls kits.
Upon landing at the airport in Port-au-Prince on the afternoon of March 16, I texted those who were to pick me up. Grateful to get an immediate response, I made my way through customs, collected my bags, and headed outside – noting that there was not the usual crowd of passengers. Within 30 seconds of leaving the building, I was relieved to see one of the St. Jude residents there to meet me. The driver then took us on a two-hour winding drive through various districts of the city, explaining to me that he was taking the safest route possible to St. Jude.
The main worry is the constant threat of kidnapping in this region of Haiti. There are multiple daily kidnappings of local citizens, from school children to nurses and doctors. It is safer to travel through the streets on a motorcycle taxi as opposed to in a car or by public transport. During my two-week stay, a busload of students was kidnapped.
These abductions are planned and carried out by a number of the approximately one hundred gangs known to operate in the greater Port-au-Prince area. The ransoms that are collected are used as income for the gangs, their families, and their supporters. Due to this constant threat, Haitians now move about Port-au-Prince only when necessary for work, school, or purchases. There are few pedestrians and cars on the streets.
There is an area, several kilometres from where I was staying, that is completely abandoned due to the fighting for territory by several gangs. The nightly gunfire, usually hundreds of rounds, woke me up each night. One Sunday the gunfire went on all day long; I estimated thousands of shots were fired that day.
The politics, policing, and crime have created a complicated situation in Haiti from the time of its independence in 1805. The ineffectiveness, or unwillingness, of the present government officials to control the banditry is evident. Haiti is an independent country, at least on paper, so the job of controlling the gangs should be a policing issue. There is known corruption in the police force, but it is understandable why police are reluctant to enter certain gang-controlled areas of Port-au-Prince; they would be sitting ducks for the gangs, who would use their arsenal of illegal weapons and ammunition to mow the police down. This occupation of certain districts has been going on for years, is escalating, and is akin to a civil war.
After leaving Haiti last week, I believe it is important to understand that hundreds of thousands of North Americans also live in daily fear for their lives. Gunfire throughout the night, every night, should not be the norm for students attending classes at École St. Paul or any other school in the world – and secondary school teachers should not be in danger each day that they come to teach.