the worms. This is the picture. Worms run through the wound folds, blood, pus, hopelessness. Worms roaming freely in the rotting flesh of a 21-year-old boy, James Fennis, in a hospital bed. “The doctor put his fist in the wound and pulled it out,” his mother, Celician Salomón, tries to explain. “So there were doctors here, but we had to buy the medicine ourselves and I don’t have… 5,000 gurds? I hadn’t”. 5,000 gurden, $30.
That was in November because of the worms. Then came the strike. At the medical center where the boy had been taken, the Haitian University Hospital, in the heart of the posh area of Port-au-Prince, two blocks from the National Palace, 100 steps from Campo Marte, a breath and a half from what was once the Pride and now it’s devastation, the doctors went on strike. They asked for something very simple: that they be paid a little more, that they have minimum conditions in order to be able to continue working. It was December 22nd.
Police stand guard in front of coffins containing the remains of three comrades who died on duty at the capital’s police academy. Odelyn Joseph (AP)
Almost two months have passed and the doctors have not returned. James Fennis, who was admitted on August 20th, languishes in his bed, in a dark room – even in the hospital the lights went out, like the doctors – forgotten, amortized by the world. His mother tries to wash the wound to prevent the worms from returning, using some chlorine tablets that make powder and paste on the boy’s wound. The last time he got him out of bed was almost two months ago, on Christmas Eve, when a group of Christians came and helped wash him. That being said, James doesn’t get up from there.
It’s a gunshot wound for the boy. Cecilian Salomón, speaking for his son because he cannot, can manage no more than a tiny trickle of voice, explains that James was walking down one of the avenues connecting the hills to the center when a projectile pierced the one below part of his head back. “It destroyed his spine and kidneys,” says the woman. He doesn’t give any further explanation, a stray bullet, something that happened to him and he had nothing to do with it. Could be. Anything can happen in the capital of a crumbling country these days.
Haiti survived. Doctors, human rights defenders and heads of international organizations questioned in the city these days, as well as victims of violence and state failure, say they don’t remember a situation like the last six months, not even after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, in July 2021. “The situation is getting worse,” explains Benoit Vasseur, head of operations for Médecins Sans Frontières, which operates one of the largest networks of clinics and hospitals in Port-au-Prince. “All institutions are collapsing. The education system, the judiciary… It’s a dying country”.
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Dozens of criminal gangs control much of the capital and its metropolitan area, which is home to three million people, a quarter of the country’s population. The police, with a force of around 10,000 soldiers, do not have the capacity to deal with them.
A gang member wearing a ski mask and armed in the Portail Leogane neighborhood of Port-au-Prince in September 2021. Rodrigo Abd (AP)
The United Nations estimated in December that 60% of Port-au-Prince’s territory is under the power of “gangs,” as the capital’s Spanish-speaking population calls gangs. This implies a de facto state of war that prevents any normalcy.
This is the case, for example, in the center, a few blocks from the same university hospital, the National Palace, the Court of Cassation, the main court of the country taken over by weeds, the unfinished monument to the bicentenary of independence, which commanded the building of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, which looks like the remains of an abandoned cement factory from below. Because 100 meters to the east, where the rubble of the cathedral lies, destroyed in the devastating 2010 earthquake that left more than 200,000 dead in its wake, there are the bargains.
Nobody can approach the territory of criminal groups in Port-au-Prince, which also controls all entry and exit roads, turning the capital into a kind of bunker with holes. Nobody comes close unless the groups themselves allow it, a rarity practiced only by their most popular leader, Jimmy Cherizier, aka Barbecue. Cherizier is a former police officer who enjoys receiving journalists and showing them around one of Port-au-Prince’s seafront slums, usually Cité Soleil, while explaining that far from being a murderer, he is a social leader who wants to end up with corruption.
The state of war can be recognized by the density of people per square meter, quite high in the streets leading down from the National Palace, very low next to the Cathedral, the gateway to the Bel Air district, one of the trenches in the area. There is no one near the old temple and the surrounding streets are barricaded with garbage, old tires and concrete blocks. The bargain. There are other names besides barbecue, which he apparently inherited from his mother, who sold fried chicken on the street. They are Vitelhomme, Gabriel Jean Pierre, Izo, Ti Makak…
Police patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince. Odelyn Joseph (AP)
But alongside their names, what counts is their firepower, which is as high as ever, and their commercial interests, which have veered toward racketeering and kidnapping over the past year and a half. According to local NGOs trying to plug the government’s statistical deficit, there will be hundreds of kidnappings in 2021 and 2022, some targeting foreigners, as in the case of 16 missionaries captured late last year, the majority, however, against the local population.
The Bargain Way
In the old and gaunt Pacot district, the Oloffson Hotel symbolizes the decline of Port-au-Prince like no other. Headquarters of the local bohemian scene not too many years ago, the Oloffson, one of the jewels of Haitian gingerbread architecture, now looks like the sad hull of a drifting ship. For three decades, the hotel was home to the voodoo rock band RAM, led by Haitian Richard Morse. RAM played here regularly and many people from the capital came to dance and drink beer.
Today the Oloffson languishes in desolate silence. Nightlife is practically non-existent in the capital, especially in a border area due to gang warfare fighting over territory and potential votes or control of communications. In front of the door, two mountains of rubbish illustrate the decay of the environment. Nearby, in the bed of a dry river, smoke and ash pour from a source of garbage. A river that burns
“I moved to Oloffson in 1988,” Morse says of New Orleans, his new home, that of his family and his band. “I rented it, it was a good opportunity. We did our first show there on Christmas Eve 1990 and we played until 2022,” he explains. But late last year the situation became untenable. “Between September and October, seven events in different parts of the country were canceled,” he adds. “We left in October.”
Protest in the Villa Pétion neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Odelyn Joseph (AP)
The beginning of the last disaster cycle in Haiti dates back to last September. In the middle of the month, interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who has ruled the country since Moise’s assassination, announced a more than 100% increase in fuel prices in a message to the nation. Subsidized by Venezuelan aid since the good old days, Henry’s decree sparked a wave of protests that literally paralyzed the country.
Traffic was impossible because of the barricades, and the supply of water, food and fuel collapsed. Barbecue and his gang alliance, known as G-9 en famille et Alliés, seized the port terminal where imported fuel is stored. Between late September and early October, MSF discovered a new outbreak of cholera, years after the last case.
In the midst of all this, criminal gangs fought each other across the city. It was mayhem. On October 5, Henry requested foreign aid to control the violence and cholera outbreak. Nine days later, the United Nations warned of the “catastrophic” level of hunger the country was registering, affecting nearly five million people.
View of the Jalousie neighborhood in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) HECTOR RETAMAL (AFP)
In January, the killing of 14 police officers in just three weeks angered the company, which was unable to deal with crime. A violent protest by agents and former agents paralyzed the compound near the airport, forcing Henry, who was arriving from a trip from Argentina, to seek refuge in a terminal building for hours. Local media even reported firearm detonations near his home.
The situation has not improved since then. People take to the streets to sell and buy what little they have or can, inventing a maze every day that avoids the path of bargains. Given the immobility of Henry and his government, opposed by much of the populace and the remnant of civil society, the possibility of a new crisis erupting drives all forecasts off the calendar. Haiti is the country of everyday life, of the present, which is shipwrecked.
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