Martissant residents fleeing from home with children and babies because gang members have been looting and setting homes in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood on fire. Photo via Vant Bèf Info

By Garry Pierre-Pierre | The Conversation

Growing up in Haiti, I remember that when we left home for school, or went elsewhere, no one had a key. Only the help of the house kept watch. Doors were left wide open during the day, to be locked up only when we went to bed at night. For most people at the time, you locked your doors out of a sense of routine, not out of fear for your safety.

But back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Port-au-Prince was a sleepy, mostly middle-class city. Bel Air, Turgeau, Carrefour Feuilles and other neighborhoods were artist colonies where novelists mingled with sculptors and teachers. Downtown was largely left to commerce and was a hub of transport. 

Petion-ville was an ex-burb and Delmas was a mostly wooded area. 

We’ve come a long way since those tranquil days, when the worry was more about Papa Doc goons, the Tonton Macoutes. But at that time, the rules  were clear. Stay away from politics and don’t speak ill of the wise old doctor turned dictator, and you were fine. 

The other fear we harbored was the mythical loup garou, known in Vodou lore to be a spirit that can cast spells on you or “eat” bad children. 

Today, we find ourselves talking about internally displaced people fleeing Bel Air, which is caught up in fratricidal gang warfare. How did we get here? The decline of Port-au-Prince, once a wondrous Caribbean city where foreign diplomats sent their children to the public schools for quality education started during that idyllic period I recall.

The musicians, functionaries, teachers, and the other professionals began a slow migration out of the city and the country. Old neighbors reunited on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Brooklyn, New Jersey and Montreal. The Canadian government, looking to increase its ranks of French speakers, offered professionals legal status and in many cases, a job equal to what they were doing in Haiti. 

My parents were part of that early exodus. I would join them in 1975 — June 24 to be exact. It was one of those searing moments in a person’s life, even at that tender young age. I was ambiguous about coming to America. I missed my friends and the soccer matches and the table tennis tournaments. 

By the late 1980s, a strong Haitian community was growing in South Florida, largely in Miami. That too would expand to Broward and Palm Beach counties. These days, Central Florida is becoming a significant enclave. 

Loss of character and charm

Back in Haiti, as the residents left these Port-au-Prince neighborhoods, new residents arrived and they kept coming. Bel Air, home to the country’s main cathedral, became an overpopulated slum. Carrefour, a nightlife haven, became a dangerous intersection. 

These communities have since lost their character and charm. Trash began piling up across the country. Forests were cleared to build houses that were erected almost randomly with no sewer system in place. 

The Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, built for half a million people, is now home to more than 3 million inhabitants. Neighbors became strangers and petty crime, which never existed prior, became a recurring issue. People began to lock their doors.

Every five years, I have to make new contacts and friends because the people I hung out with over the years keep leaving the country. 

And throughout it all, government after government has ignored these problems and, at times, have been at odds with the people’s interests and needs. Some administrations are incapable, others incompetent and most corrupt. 

The neglects create a decline in the quality of life, slowly at first, hard to notice in the moment. But it’s there.  In the last three years, we’ve seen a precipitous drop. The poor quality of life  has accelerated at a speed that frightens people who live there, no matter their socio-economic standing in the country. 

“Don’t come”

The Haitian Times staff has been trying to return to Haiti to finish reporting on a series we’re doing on the environment for a while now. But we cannot conduct routine interviews without real fear of gang attacks. 

One man who manages a plastic recycling plant in Croix des Bouquets who we interviewed back in January told us emphatically not to come. Two of his trucks have been burned and the plant has been attacked. He has had it.  

He was despondent in telling us not to come down because he held out and stayed and now, he’s feeling a bit of regret. He’s looking for a way out. His story reflects the current mood of every Haitian: They are tired and need a return to some sense of normalcy. 

I often wondered what would have happened to me if my parents hadn’t left Haiti. Would I become a prominent journalist, earning a respectable living and taking care of my family? I wish I could answer categorically yes, but I don’t know. I don’t have too many examples of that happening. 

Gang infestation of a neighborhood, a city or a country, is a clear example of what happens when government distances itself from providing its population the most basic human rights: healthcare, education and security.

Trying to combat gang violence through force is not going to work. Every general will tell you that you can’t kill your way out of a war. Diplomacy and soft diplomacy at that, is necessary to end a war and provide stability to a place. 

The seminal question is that when are Haitian leaders going to start the diplomatic approach by providing jobs, enforcing the rule of law and close the equality gap that is as large as the indigo blue Caribbean Sea along Haiti’s pristine coastline. They speak of a constitutional referendum whose ostensible goal is to protect corrupt politicians, not to reform the country’s legal framework. 

Barbecue and the other colorful gang leaders won’t be around forever. In fact, they are likely to die violently sooner than later. I’m not mean and don’t wish them ill. But that’s just the way it is in that world. I remember the Chimeres of the early 2000s and Amiot Metayer, AKA, Cubain who terrorized the nation back then. It turns out that it was a junior varsity stuff. Now we’re seeing varsity level violence, if not professional grade. 

Kanpech’s carnival ditty from some years back, Nou Mele — which means roughly “we’re doomed” in English — comes to mind when assessing the current situation in Haiti. 

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply