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Violence in Haiti escalates amid a civilian vigilante movement

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Violence in Haiti has been spiraling out of control for roughly two years now. And there was another grim event this week. The followers of an evangelical minister, last Saturday, protested the violence there. One of the armed gangs that has been controlling capital city of Port-au-Prince fought back. At least seven people are believed to have been killed. But the situation is so fraught that people are afraid to venture out to collect the dead. Thousands of people are estimated to have died, with at least 850 people killed in the first three months of this year. Jacqueline Charles is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald who's been covering Haiti. Jacqueline, thanks so much for being with us.

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about this protest. Was it part of the civilian vigilante movement we've been hearing about?

CHARLES: I mean, we can clearly say that it was part of that because since April, we've seen, you know, Haitians across the country taking up machetes, rocks, sticks and saying that they're going after gangs. And in this particular case, you have a pastor who basically led his followers to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. And when they arrived, the gangs opened fire on them with assault rifles.

SIMON: You have described what happened as a massacre. What was it like?

CHARLES: It is a massacre because the reality is we really do not know how many people have been killed. We've seen videos, and in those videos, we've counted bodies. I've talked to other people who've said that they've heard the numbers of upwards of 30. Some of these people were also held hostage and kidnapped. The reason why we know that the dead are church members are because they were wearing shirts with the name of the pastor written on the shirt.

SIMON: Jacqueline, how do people live with this kind of violence all around them?

CHARLES: I have to tell you, the last couple of weeks, the violence has just continued, and it has escalated. And it's not just in this community of Canaan, but it's also in the area near the U.S. embassy. Last month, the U.S. ordered the departure of nonemergency personnel. On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department asked U.S. citizens in Haiti to leave as soon as possible. Port-au-Prince - prior to this, the number we heard was 80% controlled by gangs. And people are increasingly fearful that they're going to lose complete control of Port-au-Prince to armed gangs. It is very difficult. You know, when you go out in Haiti, you have to really think about whether it's worth it. A simple trip to the grocery store could land you dead or kidnapped.

SIMON: Why does the government not do something about the violence? Isn't that sort of the first responsibility of government, to keep its citizens safe from harm?

CHARLES: One would say that is the first responsibility of government. But two years after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, you have no elected leaders in this country. The gang crisis, which existed when President Jovenel Moise was there has now proliferated. You have over 5 million people who struggle to find enough to eat. The reality is that you have a population today that is in panic, that cannot sleep because of the crackling of automatic gunfire all day, all night. And people are wondering if I will be next. Will my house be the one that's been invaded?

SIMON: There was a proposal last month from Kenya to send troops to Haiti to support security forces there. What's the latest on that possibility?

CHARLES: Last week, a 10-member delegation from Kenya visited Port-au-Prince. What they talked about was a static force, basically coming in and securing the airport, the seaport, main roads, the police academy. That has not gone down well with Haitians. The response that happened after we at the Miami Herald broke that story were people saying, if you're going to come, you need to come to help us fight. You need to come and join the police to combat gangs because what's happening in Haiti today, what it requires is - its guerrilla warfare.

SIMON: Jacqueline, your mother was from Haiti, right?

CHARLES: Yes, she is.

SIMON: Have you ever seen the country in this kind of state?

CHARLES: This is unprecedented what's happening here in Haiti. People are losing their homes. They're losing everything. Because of what's happening in terms of the U.S. embassy, you have people who have visas. They can't get their visas renewed because the embassy is closed. Those who can - they leave. They fly to Miami, or they go across the border to the Dominican Republic. But so many other Haitians - they have no other choice. And, of course, there are Haitians who are being deported back to Haiti by the United States. This week, the Biden administration sent a charter plane to Port-au-Prince, and it reportedly has 66 individuals on board.

SIMON: What do you hear from Haitians? How do they go on?

CHARLES: They pray, right? They pray. I mean, last week, as the gangs were moving into one particular neighborhood of the capital, a friend of mine shared with me the voice notes from her nieces. They were on the ground in their home. Armed men were walking outside their window. And all you could hear is just a voice trembling and the fear in this little girl's voice because they don't know what to do. They sought safety someplace. The next day, they attempted to go back to their house, and their house had been set on fire. And this, unfortunately, is a common story that we are hearing over and over and over again. People are being forced out. They attempt to return to get their belongings. They're either killed, or they're raped because gangs today are using sexual violence as a weapon. The situation really is increasingly becoming unbearable.

SIMON: Jacqueline Charles is Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHARLES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.