‘The city is a jail’: Haitian journalists get word out about gang violence | Haiti

Each day, Makenson Rémy wakes in the hush of the night to tell the story of his shattered home town, Port-au-Prince. Each day, he fears he might die. “I am very worried for the city. I am worried for my family. I am worried for myself too, because at any moment I could go out and never come back,” said the Haitian journalist who is responsible for the crack-of-dawn radio broadcasts that help the capital’s jittery residents stay alive.

Rémy uses a motorbike to move around the city, which a gang rebellion six weeks ago has almost entirely cut off from the outside world, gathering information on where is and isn’t safe to tread. As he slaloms through barricaded streets under the cover of darkness, he has witnessed spine-chilling scenes.

On one morning last week, reporting for Haiti’s most popular station, Radio Caraïbes, he encountered “about 30 men with heavy weapons” on the road to the airport, which gang fighters had forced to close at the beginning of the uprising. Farther north, Rémy spotted another mob of gunmen. In the southern suburbs he heard gunshots – the latest disturbance in a criminal insurrection that has forced nearly 100,000 people to abandon the city and locked the prime minister out of the country.

Haitian national police patrol in the Champs de Mars, the main public square of Port-au-Prince, earlier this month. Photograph: Mentor David Lorens/EPA

The situation has grown so dire that Rémy, 47, and his wife decided recently she would flee to the US with one of their three children. “Often I also think about leaving the country,” he admitted. “But in those moments I remember that my work helps 3 million people every morning who need to know if they can leave their homes.”

With Port-au-Prince hemmed in by the uprising, and foreign journalists struggling to arrive, it has fallen to a gutsy fellowship of Haitian reporters to get the word out about the city’s drama. Just as Palestinian journalists have kept the world informed about the war in Gaza, a place where foreign reporters are almost entirely banned from entering, so too are Haitian correspondents playing a vital role in documenting their city’s state of siege.

“I’m proud of my fellow Haitian journalists … I commend their courage,” said Roberson Alphonse, the head of news at the Caribbean country’s oldest daily, Le Nouvelliste.

Alphonse, 46, is not in Haiti himself. The investigative journalist escaped to the US after a 2022 assassination attempt in which his his car was sprayed with bullets. But he continues to write and broadcast unremittingly about Haiti’s tribulations from his new home in Michigan in the hope of getting the world’s attention. “Often, when I dream about my country, I wake up with tears in my eyes,” he said.

Jean Daniel Sénat: ‘We have to inform the people and we have to inform the international community.’ Photograph: Etienne Côté-Paluck/The Guardian

Reporters from his 125-year-old publication are on the frontline of covering the latest catastrophe to hit a country that has faced a succession of hammer blows, including an earthquake in 2010 that brought Port-au-Prince to its knees. Jean Daniel Sénat has covered more distressing stories in his 10 years as a reporter than most journalists face in a lifetime. A cholera outbreak. A president’s murder. Anti-government protests that stained the streets with fire and blood. None of that compares with the current calamity.

“Now we have a gang war. Systematic attacks, everywhere and [against] everybody,” said Sénat, 32, whose mother follows his bleak dispatches from the relative safety of southern Haiti. He said his work had become progressively more difficult since the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, after which politically connected gangs tightened their grip on Port-au-Prince with an arsenal of mostly US-made guns. Since Moïse’s slaying, at least five Haitian journalists have been murdered in direct reprisal for their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The violence forced Le Nouvelliste to move its base in 2022 to Pétion-Ville, an affluent suburb in the hills, to the south of Port-au-Prince. But since the uprising began on 29 February, even that traditional bubble of security has been punctured by gunfights and killings.

“The gangs are everywhere now … The city is a jail,” said Sénat, who also hosts a breakfast radio programme on Radio Magik9. Apart from his show, the station has cancelled all of its programming to keep staff out of the line of fire and to save petrol, amid fears of food and fuel shortages.

People walk past burnt remains of vehicles near the presidential palace, Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

Despite the risks, Sénat is determined to continue chronicling the unrest. “This is my passion. I know the situation is difficult – you can feel the danger. But we have to inform the people and we have to inform the international community,” he said.

Radio Caraïbes has abandoned its studios of more than 50 years. The station’s old headquarters is near Champ de Mars, the tree-lined central district that is home to government ministries, banks and the national palace, and which rifle-toting outlaws have repeatedly attacked in an apparent attempt to seize control. “The journalists … were starting to have a lot of difficulty getting to work,” Rémy said.

Rémy’s pre-dawn reconnaissance missions have laid bare how Haiti’s police force is outnumbered by the gangs. “When I take to the streets at 3am, no police vehicles have [their] flashing lights on. It’s as if the police are hiding … so the bandits don’t attack them,” he said.

Makenson Rémy uses a motorbike to move around the city, gathering information on where is and isn’t safe to go. Photograph: Etienne Côté-Paluck/The Guardian

The government has also vanished, with Haiti’s lame-duck prime minister, Ariel Henry, unable to return since the turmoil began. “We don’t know where they have gone. We haven’t seen a minister’s convoy on the streets for over three weeks,” Rémy said.

Gang rampages have turned downtown Port-au-Prince into a charred ghost town of torched businesses and derelict shops forsaken by their owners. “These people don’t know what to do any more. Their entire businesses [have been] destroyed. There is absolutely no hope left.”

Rémy is intent on continuing to expose the worst violence he has witnessed in 27 years of reporting. At daybreak on Friday, he was back on the streets, and for once the city seemed calm. The only sign of trouble Rémy saw was the looted office of a mobile phone company and a hardware store.

A few hours later, after a fortnight of fraught negotiations, Haiti’s official gazette announced the creation of a transitional government tasked with restoring peace and picking new leaders to replace Henry, who is in California, and the late Moïse. Its creation was welcomed by the US and the UN but appeared to spark a new round of squabbling between the outgoing prime minister and the politicians jostling to replace him.

At Radio Caraïbes’s temporary HQ in the hills outside the capital, a carpenter was putting the finishing touches to the improvised newsroom and the entrance was sprinkled with sawdust. A thick black cloth separated the broadcasting area from the control room, where recording equipment sat on two plastic folding tables. There was no sign outside.

Rémy said it was not only the station that had been uprooted by the armed groups. Several journalists had fled their homes. “But we must not get discouraged. We must stay positive,” he insisted. “Haiti is fundamentally good and has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, those people who are fighting do not understand how rich the country is.”


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