As Vélina Élysée Charlier ventured on to the streets of her conflict-stricken city last week, she encountered scenes that will haunt her for many years to come.
Armed civilians dragging bodies through the streets. Smouldering corpses. Young men with machetes chasing suspected gangsters they planned to kill.
“I’ve seen enough dead people for many lifetimes,” said the Haitian human rights activist. “Since Monday, if you get killed, you get burned. It’s kill, burn, kill, burn … It’s nothing I would want anyone else to witness. It stays with you … It’s hell, you know?”
The nightmarish events unfolding in Haiti’s coastal capital, Port-au-Prince, began before dawn on Monday when members of one of its notorious gangs reportedly tried to seize control of the city’s Turgeau area.
“What they didn’t count on was the population striking back,” said Charlier, who works in the neighbourhood.
Over the coming hours, civilians brandishing knives, rocks and handguns rose up against the heavily armed criminals who control more than 80% of Haiti’s capital and whose activities have led the United Nations to compare the situation there to a war.
As the sun rose, the bloodshed spread. In the Canapé-Vert neighbourhood, 13 suspected gangsters were beaten, stoned to death and burned after their minibus was stopped by police. In Turgeau another six men were reportedly set on fire.
The violence continued on Tuesday as Canapé-Vert’s residents formed self-defence brigades and took to their barricaded streets with rocks and knives.
“We are planning to fight and keep our neighbourhood clean of these savages,” one vigilante, a 37-year-old called Jeff Ezequiel, told the Associated Press.
On Wednesday, as groups sprang up in other communities, another lynching was reported: this time, eight suspected criminals in the community of Debussy.
“We’re already dead, so we might as well die fighting,” Charlier remembered one person in Turgeau telling her.
The lynchings have sparked a strange and disturbing mix of horror, fear and optimism in Haitian communities fed up with being terrorised by the gangs.
“Seeing the population fighting back – even though there are lots of human rights violations, even though justice by the people is never the way to go because it just spirals into a cycle of violence that never stops – gives you … the sense that people are as mad as you are,” said Charlier. “What’s happening is giving hope to the population that they can fight back.”
“It is obscene,” the author and activist Monique Clesca said of the lynchings. “But that’s what these bandits have pushed us to.”
“It’s more than frustration … [Rage] is the only word,” Clesca added, blaming the surge of mob justice on years of elite political corruption and connivance with organised crime.
“It’s harrowing; it’s brutal; it is inhuman. But when you consider all these years that we have been put under that pressure by the gangs, the economic people [and] the political people … [it is not surprising].”
Daniel Foote, the outspoken former US special envoy to the Caribbean country, said he was also unsurprised at the violence, given the police’s failure to bring the gangs to heel.
“At some point I thought they were going to start to take matters into their own hands because they’ve got no choice. They’ve got nothing else,” Foote said.
“The Haitians, like anybody, can only take so much. The gangs have stolen their lives from them,” Foote added, as a spokesperson for Haiti’s embattled and enfeebled national police force implored citizens to stop. “Do not take justice into your own hands,” Garry Desrosiers told reporters on Wednesday.
That plea looks likely to fall on deaf ears, given the scale of the security catastrophe facing one the Caribbean’s largest cities, which was levelled by an earthquake in 2010 and has been struggling to find its feet ever since.
As people in Port-au-Prince fought to reclaim their communities, the UN secretary general’s special envoy to Haiti offered a chilling overview of the country’s “rapidly deteriorating security situation” and the parallel humanitarian crisis that have left almost half of Haiti’s 11 million citizens going hungry.
María Isabel Salvador told the UN security council that March had seen Haiti’s highest number of reports of murders, rapes, kidnappings and lynchings since 2005. Children had been shot in classrooms and snatched at school gates. Snipers had indiscriminately targeted civilians. Women had been terrorised by “multiple-perpetrator” rape.
“Faced with these increasingly violent armed gangs vying for control of neighbourhoods of the capital, with limited or no police presence, some residents have begun to take matters into their own hands,” the Ecuadorian diplomat reported. “These dynamics lead unfailingly to the breakdown of social fabric with unpredictable consequences for the entire region.”
The human rights activist Rosy Auguste Ducéna called the lynchings a “worrisome” development. Her group had been unable to calculate the exact death toll. But some suspect dozens, perhaps scores, have been killed in recent days.
Ducéna blamed the government of the prime minister, Ariel Henry – who took power after the 2021 assassination of the then president, Jovenel Moïse – for the uprising as it had failed to dismantle and prosecute gang members and surrendered many areas to their rule. “There is a certain complicity between [the gangs] and the state authorities,” Ducéna said, adding that “permanent calm” would only come if authorities stopped protecting criminal groups.
Clesca said it was hard to know where the nascent anti-gang insurrection would lead. “They are small [incidents], but they are significant. Will they multiply? What will happen? I think we have to watch and we have to be very sensitive to that,” she said, predicting the coming weeks would see “more people, cities and towns rising up and saying: ‘We are not taking this. Enough is enough.’”
Foote also wondered whether the rebellion might signal a new phase in Haiti’s political, humanitarian and security crises, “because this is the first time that people have really taken matters into their own hands, which is how the Haitians won independence [in 1804] and have kept their independence a number of times since then”.
I cannot even think about the collective trauma we are going to have to deal with in a couple of years
Vélina Élysée Charlier
The dire outlook has prompted calls for an international intervention – a call repeated by Salvador at the UN. “The Haitian people cannot wait. We need to act now,” she said, calling for the urgent deployment of “an international specialised force” to fight gangs.
Foote said he was “100% ideologically opposed” to another foreign intervention, given the miserable track record of previous efforts including the 2004-2017 UN stabilisation mission, whose peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti and were accused of sexual abuse and exploitation.
“But I believe that they’re going to need an intervention. It’s just that bad, to be honest with you,” Foote said. “It’s not Haiti any more; it’s a prison … People stay in their houses and only leave if they absolutely have to … It is dangerous as fuck.”
Charlier rejected calls for a foreign intervention. “I recognise the police cannot deal with this alone,” the activist said, but nor did she want thousands of heavily armed foreign troops to return “to put a Band-Aid on a cancer”.
After navigating six vigilante roadblocks to reach work on Thursday morning, Charlier voiced despair at how the bloodshed would affect Haitian children. “Kids are going to school witnessing dead burning bodies on the side of the road … I cannot even think about the collective trauma we are going to have to deal with in a couple of years,” she said, comparing parts of her city to a war zone.
“Honestly, I don’t know [how I feel]. I just hope this is going to end very soon because I’m mentally drained and I’m exhausted,” Charlier said before concluding with a grim prophecy.
“What we are seeing in Haiti will end in blood and in ashes,” she warned. “In people being killed and in houses being burned.”