Escaping gang violence in Haiti, young girl moves to a safer city while family remains in constant danger

One morning, my friend jolted me awake with an urgent phone call. “Did you hear? A thousand people just died,” she said. I had not known about an attack near my parents’ house. “Call your family now,” she urged, shaking me out of my drowsiness. The thought that my parents or siblings might be among the dead choked me with sadness.

  • 4 weeks ago
  • June 27, 2024
6 min read
Food distribution in Haiti. | Photo by the U.S. Government/ United States Marines courtesy of Flickr Food distribution in Haiti. | Photo by the U.S. Government/ United States Marines courtesy of Flickr
Nun Neethoudjif Meleance has been living in Cap-Haïtien for six years with one of her brothers.
Nun Neethoudjif Meleance, a 22-year-old teacher, works with children who have learning disabilities as a private tutor. She has been living in Cap-Haïtien for six years with one of her brothers. She moved from Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, due to the extreme violence unleashed by armed gangs after they gained control of the city and other areas of the country.
Haiti is in the midst of a serious humanitarian, political, and security crisis following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, and the strengthening of criminal gangs that now dominate a significant part of the territory and access to key infrastructure such as ports and airports. In early March, one of these gangs orchestrated the escape of more than 3,600 prisoners from a jail and has imposed terror in several areas of the country, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry. The recent escalation of violence has reached alarming levels, with reports of dozens of deaths, kidnappings, rapes of women and girls, and the forced displacement of more than 35,000 people since the beginning of 2024.

CAPE HAITIEN, Haiti – In Port-au-Prince, a city where I once found happiness, fear and danger became my constant companions. In Haiti’s capital, violence has overtaken the streets and my life become severely restricted. I felt imprisoned and paralyzed by fear, even while attempting simple tasks like visiting someone or going to school.

Life felt like a grim routine. Meanwhile, violence and terrible news became an everyday occurrence. Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave Port-au-Prince, seeking safety and peace elsewhere. However, my family remains in the capital, and every day I grapple with a sense of dread that one of them will fall victim to gang violence.

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Gang violence in Port-au-Prince prompts young woman to flee to another city

Six years ago, I relocated from Port-au-Prince to Cape-Haïtien, seeking refuge from the extreme violence that already existed there. Life in Cape-Haïtien offered something different. I can walk the streets without fear of being abducted or hearing gunshots. While the small city lacks the hustle and bustle of Port-au-Prince, I prefer boredom over perpetual danger.

Over a year ago, in May 2023, I took one last trip to Port-au-Prince to visit my family. The quiet, eight-hour bus ride carried few people. Not many venture into the capital these days unless it’s an emergency. As we neared the city, fear gripped everyone. In certain areas, passengers spontaneously prayed aloud. We worried about the gangs stopping us and kidnapping people.

Fear hovered in the air and settled within me. Upon arriving in Port-au-Prince, I felt no relief. Instead, I encountered a heightened sense of terror. One afternoon, as I walked through the streets, an argument broke out between a motorcyclist and a policeman. Their escalating voices raised the tension, causing my heart to race.

Yet, the people walking by showed no surprise or concern. They likely experienced far more serious circumstances than that. When the policeman drew his gun, the motorcyclist walked away, deescalating the situation. I still see their standoff in my mind. Determined never to relive that experience, I locked myself inside my parents’ house every day.

“Did you hear? A thousand people just died, call your family now,” urged a friend

When I returned to Cape-Haïtien, a few months later, close relatives sent me shocking news: a gang war in Port-au-Prince claimed my cousin’s life. Caught in the crossfire, she could not escape. Despite not having a strong bond with that branch of my family, the tragedy shook me. With Port-au-Prince becoming increasingly inaccessible, no one could travel to attend her funeral.

I typically avoid the news, preferring to live in my safe bubble. However, violence invades even the quietest corners of our lives. One morning, my friend jolted me awake with an urgent phone call. “Did you hear? A thousand people just died,” she said. “Call your family now,” she urged, shaking me out of my drowsiness. The idea that my parents or siblings could be among the dead choked me with sadness.

Panic surged as I dialed my father’s number. The seconds before he answered felt like an eternity. When I heard his voice on the phone line, it flooded me with relief. While the loss of so many lives was heartbreaking, I felt grateful misfortune evaded our family this time.

From then on, the violence loomed larger. Two months later, the gangs expanded their territory, and my family relocated to another part of the capital. In that unpredictable environment, we never knew what might happen next.

Girl’s concern grows as her parents remain in the chaotic city

In Cap-Haïtien, peace prevails. However, I constantly monitor the situation in Port-au-Prince, where chaos reigns. Every day, I send messages to my parents to check on their safety. I repeatedly open WhatsApp to see the time of their last connection. Any reassurance I can find offers me a sigh of relief. “They’re still alive,” I think, allowing me to proceed with my daily activities.

As I look at my phone, I feel a tightness in my heart as I think about my parents venturing out to buy daily necessities in a dangerous area filled with armed groups. This palpable fear creates a lump in my throat. I try to breathe, attempting to calm the panic that threatens to consume me. Some days, I convince myself they’ll be fine, but the specter of danger looms large. I actively fight against the thought of their sudden demise. That thought seems to be eroding me from the inside.

On days I call them and they are slow to respond, I enter a peculiar state. It feels like controlled panic: familiar but unwelcome. I reassure myself, thinking, “Maybe there’s no signal.” I scour news sources, searching for clues about clashes near their home. Social media statuses become my lifeline. I look for clues on social networks and in the WhatsApp statuses of other family members and friends. Until I hear from them, I remain suspended in uncertainty; my existence hanging on theirs.

I pleaded with my parents to leave Port-au-Prince, or send my younger siblings to safety, but they stand firm, rooted in their city. I have accepted my powerlessness in this tug-of-war. Their decision binds me here, separated from them. In an alternate reality, devoid of violence, I would still be in Port-au-Prince with my life intact. But that city, once vibrant, now lies shattered, like a haunting question mark. Will it ever regain its former self?

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