Venite Bernard's feet are bloodied because she did not have time to get her shoes when she fled her home with her youngest children.
Bernard and her family lived in the poorest part of Haiti’s capital, where gunmen have been known to shoot people in their homes. Now they live safely inside the town hall of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince.
More than 200 other Haitians also are camped out there. They all fled part of what many civic leaders say is Haiti’s worst lawlessness in more than 10 years.
"Bandits entered the homes of some people and beat them, and they were shooting," Bernard said as she cried. "Everyone was running so I left as quickly as I could with the children."
United Nations peacekeeping troops withdrew from Haiti in 2017 after 15 years. At the time, UN officials said the force had helped to re-establish law and order.
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Nearly 60 percent of the population survives on less than $2.40 a day.
But the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers meant reduced security. Haitian police forces have been moved out of the area to provide security at protests against President Jovenel Moise.
“They have been unable to contain the activity of gangs as they might have wished," said Serge Therriault, the UN’s police commissioner in Haiti.
A weak economy, rising inflation and a lack of investment in poorer areas has led to an increase in crime. Some neighborhoods have become places where everyone is afraid to go.
Diplomats fear the situation in Haiti represents a growing threat to that part of the Caribbean. They say it could affect migration, drugs and weapons trafficking.
The United States House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Haiti on Tuesday, its first in 20 years.
Moise's critics say he has lost control of the country and should resign. The president says the situation is already calming down and he will carry out his full term.
Haitians say gangs fight over neighborhoods where they demand "protection" money and carry out drug and arms sales.
Some politicians are using the gangs to repress or incite protests. They are also providing weapons and assisting the worst of the criminals, according to human rights experts and Haitians.
"When those in power pay them, the bandits stop the population from participating in the anti-government protests," said William Dorélu, who lives in Cite Soleil. "When they receive money from the opposition, they force people to take to the streets."
Both opposition leaders and the government deny the accusations.
Impunity Breeds Crime
Moise told the Reuters news agency last month he was trying to strengthen Haiti's police force. He also said he had reestablished a committee to get gangs to disarm.
The president wrote in a statement to Reuters on Tuesday that accusations of violence will be investigated and brought to justice.
Critics accuse the president and his administration of failing to arrest gang leaders. The criminals feel free to do as they want and the police are too weak to stop them.
"Every time the police stop a gangster, there is always the intervention…to free them," said Pierre Esperance. He directs Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network, RNDDH. The group watches for human rights violations.
Esperance spoke at the U.S. congressional hearing. He said that more than 40 police officers had been killed this year, compared with 17 in 2018.
One year ago, there was a massacre in the neighborhood of La Saline, where anti-Moise feelings are strong, rights activists say.
Over two days, gunmen killed at least 26 people while police failed to stop the violence, said a UN report. Eyewitnesses named in the report say they saw a government official with the gang. It is possible the gangs and government officials are working together, the UN wrote.
The government later dismissed the official, who denied any involvement. Neither he nor anyone else has been arrested or brought to trial over the massacre.
The information about the La Saline massacre “is in the hands of the justice system," Moise told Reuters.
People living in La Saline say they feel abandoned.
"We never received an official visit after these events," said Marie Lourdes Corestan. She found her 24-year old son's body in a pile with other bodies.
There have been six massacres since Moise took office, said the RNDDH, the most recent one last month.
The U.N.'s Therriault said a recent lessening of protests is helping police officers get control of the security situation.
But many, including Bernard, say they are too afraid. She has not been able to find her two oldest sons.
"I hope my boys are not dead," she said. "I wish for the end of this violence, and that God helps us to find somewhere to live."
I’m Dorothy Gundy, and I'm Susan Shand.
The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words In This Story
town hall – n. a public building used for government offices and meetings
bandits – n. criminals
hemisphere – n. half of an round object, such as a planet
gang – n. a group of people working together on unlawful activities
according – adv. as stated by or in
massacre – n. an event in which a large number of people are killed
abandon – v. to give up control of another person or territory