This story is part of a short series about the state of education in Haiti as the country reels from gang violence. This is the second installment.
Port-au-Prince — Germaine Zamor, a teacher in Pernier, was in her classroom on May 15 when she started getting messages from parents telling her not to let the children leave the school. It was about 10 a.m. and, according to the parents, armed bandits were attacking the town in retaliation for operations that Haiti National Police had carried out previously in the area.
“There were shootings in Timoulin, Bauduit and Anba Galette, all neighborhoods in Pernier,” Zamor said.
Some teachers who lived near the school climbed over its walls to find their way home. During a moment of calm at the end of the afternoon, parents in Ti Moulin were able to get their children home. But the standoff intensified in Anba Galette, so parents there could not pick up their children.
“I laid the children face down on the floor,” Zamor recalled. “That day, I slept at the school with 17 children. I had to buy pasta from nearby shops to feed us. The children were so scared.”
Data from the Ministry of Education’s West Department Administration showed a total of 1,700 schools have been closed and 193,000 students were affected by violence during the 2021-2022 school year. In Port-au-Prince 3rd district, 152 schools have either had difficulty or closed. In the Croix des Bouquets area, north of Port-au-Prince, about 770 schools did not open their doors. In Tabarre, the number was 440 and 41 in Bel-Air.
Schoolchildren were among about 20,000 people fleeing neighborhoods like Martissant, Cité-Soleil, Bel-Air. They were forced to move to other regions, under the constraints of armed groups and in cruel and inhuman conditions, according to Defender Plus, a human rights organization.
From the year 2019 to 2022, between the Covid 19 epidemic, kidnapping, political fight with leaders vying for power and war between gangs, no school day passed uninterrupted.
“Compared to other years, 2022 is one of the rare years where students almost managed to follow the school calendar,” said Frank Etienne Louiseul, Departmental Director of State Education for the West Department. “Apart from the schools in risky areas which have not been functioning for some time, we could say that the year 2021-2022 was the best school year attended by the students.”
News reports, research and interviews with families tell a different story. The year has seen more criminal acts by armed gangs, some more scandalous than others, disrupting the schools all over the country.
In Cité Soleil this summer, a shootout got so intense, the children were allowed to flee to nearby Saint Louis de Gonzague. The prestigious school is among those that remained closed this week. It is unclear if those children are still being sheltered there.
Between 50,000 to 60,000 students were unable to attend school in the Port-au-Prince area during the 2021-2022 year, researchers with Haiti’s Department of Education (MENFP) and UNICEF in Haiti found in a joint survey. As a result, officials were preparing contingency plans to help the students affected, mostly by violence in their neighborhoods, continue to learn.
“Hundreds of thousands of children, of parents and school staff are traumatized,” Bruno Maes, of UNICEF, said in the announcement releasing the survey findings.
About 3,000 schools were targeted for the survey, with only 976 accessible to inspectors. Overall, about 218,000 students were able to attend school in the Port-au-Prince area last academic year, the survey found. Among the evaluated schools, 239 faced disruption, 71% housed bandits and 8% served as shelters for people forced to flee their homes during gang battles.
About 60% were vandalized, and have lost educational materials and office equipment. And 54, or 20%, were completely closed either because bandits set up roadblocks to collect pay-for-passage ransom or rainy weather made the roads impassable.
“Two-hundred ninety school principals complained that their schools were targeted by bandits,” Vigains Michel, MENFP’s information manager, said.
In June, for example, of the 200,000 ninth-graders registered to take official exams, 5% were not able to undergo the tests due to gang turbulence in their neighborhood. Education officials had to put in place a special center in Pétion-Ville for these candidates to take the exam.
At the time of the survey release, MENPF officials said measures would be taken to better prepare for the 2022-2023 academic year. For one, some classes will be broadcasted to allow children to continue their training, they said. The Educational Department is releasing a new learning format for first- and second-graders, a book with the five subjects. The officials said having mathematics, Creole, French, experimental sciences and general topics combined in one book should make it affordable for parents.
Finally, they planned to implement a pilot program in several technical and vocational secondary schools so high school students have the opportunity to obtain a professional diploma. But such measures can never undo what students, and their parents, endure in their neighborhood schools.
In September, the neighborhood of Martissant is still blocked to residents who are forced to take alternative routes difficult to access and require hours-long drive or walks. In towns like Pernier many residents moved out because it became practically dangerous.
Nadine, one of those parents in the Pernier siege, also recalls that May 15 day when the gang, allegedly led by Vitelhomme, terrorized residents. Her four kids were in school in nearby Torcelle, and much of the area has been sealed off from Pernier 47 to Fatima, where much looting and burning occured.
“Luckily, they knew to go through a back road to get home,” Nadine said, adding that one of her children hurt his neck when his classmates fled for safety. “That day, we went to bed at 1 a.m., without eating, without bathing because we were afraid. A few days after the attack, they often woke up in the middle of the night to ask me if bandits are attacking or setting fire to the house.”
Nadine moved her family out of Pernier, but she said her children are still afraid.
“Since we left our house to rent an apartment, economically, I’m stuck,” she said. “I don’t know yet what I’m going to do this year to send the children to school.”