Haitians face nightmarish conditions as gangs choke off fuel

Already burdened by months of political chaos and natural disaster, Haitians this week have faced new nightmarish conditions as unchecked gangs choked fuel access, cutting off power and water supplies in the process.

A man films himself in front of tyres on fire during a general strike launched by several professional associations and companies to denounce insecurity in Port-au-Prince on 18 October 2021. A nationwide general strike emptied the streets of Haiti's capital  on Monday, with organisers denouncing the rapidly disintegrating security situation highlighted by the kidnapping of American and Canadian missionaries at the weekend. Picture: Richard PIERRIN/AFP

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Already burdened by months of political chaos and natural disaster, Haitians this week have faced new nightmarish conditions as unchecked gangs choked fuel access, cutting off power and water supplies in the process.

"We are in water-rationing mode at home," said a panicked Daphne Bourgoin, the head of a textile business in the capital Port-au-Prince that has been forced since Monday to close due to the shortages.

"And for my kids, who have their (school) lessons online, how long will the internet last?" asked the 42-year-old.

The Caribbean nation has never produced enough electricity to meet the needs of the whole population. Even in well-off parts of the capital, the state-run Haiti electric utility EDH only provides, at most, a few hours of power a day.

Those who can afford it rely on pricey generators, which are no help in the face of the severe fuel shortage caused by gangs, who have been blocking access to the country's oil terminals in the capital and its outskirts, with the government under pressure to ensure security for companies to reach the crucial storage facilities.

Haiti's capital and largest cities additionally have been gripped by a general strike since Monday called by public transport unions.

LACK OF WATER AND ELECTRICITY

The lack of fuel is also damming up water access, in a country where many people rely on private companies to deliver water by truck to at-home systems.

Like electricity, public water provision falls short, with urban centers served by limited sewage networks.

With no guarantee of steady power or water supply, health care providers have been forced to drastically cut back their services.

"There is no power in the hospital to operate the equipment, there is no fuel, there is nothing," Port-au-Prince medical student Rachilde Joseph posted on social media.

The 26-year-old, who has made a name for herself publishing funny videos online, no longer has the heart to laugh.

"We would like to stay in the country to offer care, particularly to people in rural areas who need it so much, but the country doesn't give us that chance," she said, adding she thought Haiti "would unfortunately end up losing all its young people."

With few jobs to be had, thousands of young Haitians have already migrated to Latin America since 2014.

Tens of thousands nurtured hopes of settling in the United States and, believing Washington would implement a more lenient immigration policy under the administration of President Joe Biden, headed north in the summer of 2021.

Thousands gathered in early September under a bridge at the Mexico-Texas border, but more than 7,500 were ultimately deported to Haiti by US immigration authorities.

The wave of deportations has worried humanitarian organisations, as Haiti is already mired in uncertainty following the July assassination of President Jovenel Moise by commandos.

'FAILED STATE'

Ariel Henry, appointed prime minister days before Moise's murder, currently has interim control over the country but has said nothing on the rise of gangs in Port-au-Prince - now spiking with the city's paralysis as they prevent the secure supply of fuel.

"The government, which only exists in name, controls nothing, not even the perimeter of its offices," said Haitian economist Etzer Emile, for whom "the fuel crisis is the latest example of a failed state."

"As if the galloping inflation, the continuous rise of the dollar (against the local Gourde), the food insecurity, the brain drain, the kidnappings were not enough, we needed a serious fuel shortage and a shadow government full of jokers and layabouts," he told AFP.

Gangs in the small island nation have kidnapped more than 780 people for ransom since the start of the year, according to the Port-au-Prince-based Center of Analysis and Research in Human Rights.

One of the country's most powerful armed gangs is demanding $17 million in ransom for the release of a group of missionaries and their families, 16 Americans and a Canadian, who were kidnapped on 16 October east of the capital.

"The masters of our destiny and the decision-makers of our lives are no longer in the National Palace, as was the case under the Duvalier dictatorship: they are now the armed gangs," said Emile.

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