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'The stress is killing me': Haitian expats agonize as gangs terrorize Haiti

People try to comfort the relative of a person found dead in the street in the Petion-Ville suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti ,on Monday, March 18, 2024, amid a violent rampage by gangs through the capital's more affluent neighborhoods.
Odelyn Joseph
/
AP
People try to comfort the relative of a person found dead in the street in the Petion-Ville suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti ,on Monday, March 18, 2024, amid a violent rampage by gangs through the capital's more affluent neighborhoods.

With Haiti's main airport still closed, Haitians in South Florida can only watch as gangs that control Port-au-Prince violently tear through their families' neighborhoods.

As Haiti’s violent gang uprising spreads to more affluent pockets of the country this week, expats in South Florida with family there are feeling painful stress — especially the gang shutdown of Haiti's main airport and port, leaving Haitians with virtually no escape route.

"It's very difficult to deal with," Patrice Millet, a Haitian who splits his time between Miami and Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, told WLRN.

"The violence the gangs are inflicting this week is mostly in the more middle-class neighborhoods," he points out. "Against people who likely had the means to emigrate from Haiti if they'd wanted to, but chose to stay committed to the country. Now they can't get out — and we can't bring them here — even if we tried."

Millet is something of a celebrity in Haiti as the founder of the nonprofit FONDAPS, which helps kids in the slums of Port-au-Prince by getting them involved in soccer, and which was honored by CNN in 2011 for aiding youths after the country's catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Today FONDAPS is best knownfor keeping Haitian kids out of the gangs that control just about all of Port-au-Prince.

He often travels to Miami for cancer treatment — and he's here this week as Haiti’s heavily armed gangs storm middle-class Port-au-Prince neighborhoods like Laboule and Petion-Ville, where at least a dozen corpses were found on the streets on Monday.

Millet's mother and much of the rest of his family live in Laboule. Some of the thugs, Millet learned, tried to kidnap his niece at gunpoint from her house there, before he says she made a daring escape over a wall adjoining the street as they were leading her away.

READ MORE: Is it too late for anything now in Haiti except violent gang government?

“Anything could happen to her, you know," Millet said.

"Those people can rape her, do many things to her. And you know what’s incredible? Now nobody wants to help us," he said, referring to the international community's frustrating delays in deploying a multinational force, led by Kenya, to assist Haiti's overwhelmed police.

"Every day this week I’m on the phone, and...the stress is just killing me.”

 FONDAPS founder Patrice Millet (in facemask) greets Haitian boys before a soccer game in Port-au-Prince
Courtesy FONDAPS
FONDAPS founder Patrice Millet (in facemask) greets Haitian boys before a soccer game in Port-au-Prince

Millet is also having to watch helplessly as the gangs hijack the food donations that have arrived this week at Port-au-Prince’s port for FONDAPS. Aside from giving disadvantaged kids a sports outlet, the non-profit organization also gives them food to take home to their impoverished families after soccer practices.

“All these kids depend on me," Millet said. "But now I have no more food, and there is no food coming, no water. The gangs took all the containers that were in customs" at the port this week.

The gangs, which have terrorized Haiti for several years now — especially after the brutal 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse — through murder, ransom kidnappings and the theft of shipments of food, fuel and other desperately needed basic goods. The U.N. says they were responsible for almost 5,000 homicides last year.

They've staged a unified offensive this month that forced the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who they say represents Haiti's corrupt ruling elite, and who says he'll step down as soon as Haitians, the U.S. and the Caribbean Community cobble together a transitional governing council to lead Haiti to new elections.

READ MORE: Soccer's helping Haiti keep its head up — and keep kids out of gangs

The gangs, however, say they're asserting themselves as a political movement of their own — and they're demonstrating especially harshly this week that even if and when that council is formed, it may be at the mercy of their demands and high-power guns. Most of those weapons, says the U.N., are illegally trafficked to the gangs from Florida.

"Aside from coming to help us now with police and even military support," said Millet, "stopping the flow of those arms to Haiti is the most important thing the international community can do for us."

In the meantime, the only way out of Haiti is via specially chartered rescue flights through operable airports like the one at Cap-Haïtien on the north coast, or over the border with the Dominican Republic to the east.

Florida and federal officials are bracing for a new wave of Haitian refugees arriving by boats, but so far that exodus has not materialized.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis drew widespread criticism this week when he said he'd fly any Haitian boat refugees who arrive on his state's shores to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. He stoked controversy two years by sending a plane full of Venezuelan migrants there after they'd arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.

South Florida is home to the largest Haitian immigrant community in the United States, according to the latest Census data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute. An estimated 231,000 Haitian immigrants reside in the region.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.