A gang invaded the Cite Soleil neighborhood, killing and raping and burning hundreds of wooden and tin houses. Forced to leave the area, a family of four lived on the streets of Port-au-Prince until a truck ran over them while they were sleeping.
Two siblings, two and nine, died in the accident in November. Jean-Kere Almicar opened his home to their grieving parents, then another family, then another, until there were nearly 200 people camped out in his front yard and nearby.
They are among more than 165,000 Haitians who have fled their homes amid a surge in gang violence, with nowhere to go in this capital of nearly three million people.
Almicar, who used to live in Scranton, Pennsylvania but returned to Haiti in 2007, supported them with his own money.
“I can’t do anything but tell them to come in,” said Almicar. “Their house is gone. If they come back, they will be killed.”
About 79,000 people are temporarily staying with friends or family, but another 48,000 are crammed into dozens of makeshift shelters like Almicar or seek refuge in parks, churches, schools and abandoned buildings in Port- au-Prince and beyond. The situation is extremely non-profit and non-governmental organizations.
“The government is not moving anyone,” said Joseph Wilfred, one of several volunteers manning an abandoned government building in Port-au-Prince that houses nearly 1,000 people, including himself and the his family.
Tens of thousands of Haitians have suffered in these temporary shelters for almost a year.
They slept on the hard floor or in flattened cardboard boxes. The items were packed in large rice sacks pushed against the walls of the packed rooms. The gangs that drove them from their homes and control up to 80 percent of the capital, by most estimates, began recruiting children as young as eight in shelters.
A woman who lives in Almicar’s area, Lenlen Desir Fondala, said that someone abducted her five-year-old son while they were living in a park outside last November. Her face contorted and she began to cry, whispering that she was still dreaming of him.
Rapes also became common in homes and in gang-ravaged neighborhoods.
Lovely Benjamin, 26, has injuries on his body and arm after being shot by gangs and attacked with a machete. Her four-year-old son had a stab wound on his head. They were homeless, and Benjamin was having trouble finding work.
The gangs burned the goods he used to sell, including rice and oil, and he had no money to buy more. She and her small child survived the attack but the gang members killed her partner and burned her body.
“Everybody was running,” he recalls. “Gangs broke into everybody’s house.”
Benjamin and his son now live in Almicar’s front yard with other neighbors from Cite Soleil. On a recent morning, they huddled together, surrounded by piles of clothes soaked by recent floods. The stone floor where they sit and sleep also serves as a makeshift kitchen, with some cooking beans or vegetables in small, charcoal-fired stoves.
Benjamin’s neighbors include Januelle Dafka and her 15-year-old daughter, Titi Paul, who were both raped and impregnated by gang members. Another neighbor, Rose Dupont, said that she was nine months pregnant when four members of the gang shot her in the shoulder and then beat and raped her, causing her to miscarry.
The Associated Press does not identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they agree to be named, as Dafka, Paul and Dupont did.
The women brought envelopes with detailed medical records of the horrors they had endured and hoped someone would help them find a safe place to live.
Currently, they are sheltering in the yard of Almicar, who is known as “Big Papa”.
“He invested his time, his money, not to mention his energy to keep us safe,” said Dovenald Cetoute, 33, who lives there.
But few are as good as Almicar. Police evicted people from temporary shelters, and neighbors threatened to evict homeless people for fear that gang members might be hiding among them.
The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration has helped more than 3,400 people find homes in safer places and is giving families about $350 to cover a year’s rent.
But more and more families are returning to shelters as gangs continue to invade communities considered safe. Even makeshift shelters have closed and moved elsewhere because of the ongoing violence, said Philippe Branchat, head of IOM in Haiti.
“We always hear these terrible stories,” Branchat said, adding that the agency does not have access to nearly half of the makeshift shelters because of gang violence. “The situation is very, very bad.”
People in the slums sometimes only eat one mango a day. Many young children are malnourished.
On a recent morning in the abandoned government building that Wilfred helped manage as a temporary shelter, a woman wailed against the wall as the small body of her one-year-old goddaughter lying on the floor, wrapped in a towel. He died just a few hours later of suspected cholera.
The night before, a six-year-old boy died under similar circumstances, with health workers visiting the next morning suspecting cholera.
A few hours later, an ambulance arrived to pick up two other children who were fighting cholera. The bacteria, which sickens people who swallow contaminated food or water, spreads in the shelter, which has no electricity or running water, and only two makeshift holes in the ground that serve as toilets for nearly 1,000 people. people.
The deteriorating situation is a regular topic in the biweekly meetings held by the shelter leaders for those living there.
Sony Pierre, spokesperson for the committee that manages the shelter where he lives, said he is very concerned about the living conditions.
“Look at this disaster,” said Pierre as he waved his arms at the scene behind him, where flies were aggressively circling in the oppressive heat. “This is an emergency … We are looking for help to live with dignity.”