As hope dwindles for many Haitians, increasing numbers of reports are discussing the potential for violence.
Port-au-Prince has show resilience so far, but as aid remains blocked in warehouses and the situation grows more desperate, an ugly fight for survival seems a genuine possibility.
Local and international authorities had, in the first days, downplayed the security issue, stressing the capital remained calm. But the question is growing more urgent: how much longer can Haiti’s fragile society, which is no stranger to violence, hold together? The 1998 food crisis let to major riots.
How would even the strongest societies behave after days of limited or no access to food, water and shelter – where the only immediate hope of relief may lie in breaking into buildings to take it, stealing from your fellow survivors – let alone one with no effective state structures? The situation may, in turn, become increasingly difficult for international aid workers, leading to less assistance, and even more desperation: a vicious circle.
Even before the earthquake, feelings towards internationals, the UN, ranged from support to resentment. With so much aid unable to get through, it may now resurface. Pre-disaster, there had been a rise in violence over the holiday period (shooting by men on motorbikes); and political tension was growing as elections approached.
As the initial shock story subsides, many news agencies have begun to air these concerns. CNN reports of increasing worries that the peace may not last; and that medical staff have had to leave a makeshift hospital for fear of insecurity.
The UK’s Telegraph newspaper reports “the sounds of gunfire echoed around Port au Prince as looters fought over scarce food supplies, hijacked vehilces and raided a UN warehouse where 15,000 tons of food had been stockpiled.”
Reuters reports: “gangs of robbers had begun preying on survivors living in makeshift camps on streets strewn with debris and decomposing bodies, as aftershocks rippled through the hilly neighborhoods. Authorities reported some looting and growing anger among survivors despairing over the delay in life-saving assistance. Meanwhile, the United States and other nations rushed to deliver food, water and medical supplies through a jammed airport, a smashed seaport and roads littered with rubble.”
The New York Times says that looting of houses and shops increased Friday, and anger boiled over in unpredictable ways: residents near the city’s overfilled main cemetery stoned a group of ambulance workers seeking to drop off more bodies.
On a personal level, this makes the prospect of any imminent return – with our young children anyway – even less likely. Especially as we read of Haitians doing their best to leave, in case things turn bad. It is an troubling prospect, as we had just moved our whole life to Haiti; all our possessions, our jobs, our children. Haiti was our home. Despite many kind offers of assistance – including one today in Miami, from someone we never met before – I feel adrift, in nowhere land, on the sidelines. I want to go home, but I am not sure when, or how.
Does this make us refugees? Well, not in any official sense, I would suspect. We have family, friends, community roots in Europe and the US; we were in Haiti as internationals. But in another sense perhaps we are, albeit temporarily and from a position of privilege. We are displaced, without any of the familiar, comforting possessions that we use to mark our territory; no place we can call our own. It is a small concern amid a much larger tragedy, nothing in comparison with what millions of Haitians are facing, but it still feels deeply unsettling.
As to the potential for violence, the press does sometimes dramatise such situations, as it seeks an evolution in the narrative, but it would seem unwise to dismiss these warnings as fear-mongering. Common sense suggests darker times yet may be in store for Haiti’s people before the crisis plateaus.
The coming days will test the international community’s response to the utmost. One can only hope our leaders are up to the challenge; and that Haitians will find the strength to prove such fears unfounded.