April 12, 2024

Despair mounts as Americans still in Haiti try to find ways to escape

At least 450 U.S. citizens have been evacuated from Haiti since last month to escape ongoing political unrest and violence. But those who remain are now struggling to leave, and their relatives in the US are eager to see them return home.

The U.S. State Department is working to transport more Americans out of Haiti, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday that the state has rescued 220 Americans from Haiti since March 20.

While the evacuations have brought some comfort to the Americans who were able to flee, many who remain say hope for a departure is fading, and they struggle as chaos closes in around them. Erika Childs Charles, a 42-year-old mother of three living in Haiti, said she and her family have moved several times since early March to avoid rapidly increasing violence.

“They attacked the airport a few times, and then they were actively attacking two police stations close to our house,” Charles said. “The gunfire was right around us. We all had to sleep on the floor in one room of our house to stay away from stray bullets.”

Charles said she and her husband, Moroni Charles, 38, and their three daughters, aged 14, and 6-year-old twins, had moved from their home in Port-au-Prince to southern Haiti and back to the capital, seeking to safety over the past two years. years. She, her husband and their eldest daughter can enter America because of her citizenship and their visas, Charles said. But they are still going through the lengthy twin girls adoption process, so there is no way to get them to the US.

Erika Childs Charles, second from left, and her family.Thanks to Erika Childs Charles

“We tried to get Haitian passports for them, but the immigration office has been closed for weeks. They have no way to leave the country at this time,” Charles said, adding that they have sought help from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Embassy and congressional leaders. “We keep getting the same answer: that they can’t do much for us.”

Still, Charles says she’s desperate for a way.

“I spent weeks trying to find ways we could evacuate our entire family,” she said. “The problem I face is that I am the only American citizen in my family and so the American Embassy has occasionally used helicopters to evacuate American citizens, but I would have to go and leave my family behind. And that’s something I can’t do.”

Simmering tensions in Haiti flared in late February when a coalition of armed groups, including paramilitaries and former police officers, launched an attack on Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government. They raided prisons, attacked hospitals, banks and more. Henry agreed to resign on March 12, subject to the formation of a transitional government.

Concerns about the safety of foreigners in Haiti have increased as the country descends further into lawlessness. The airport, in an area of ​​Port-au-Prince where families like Charles once found safety, has been closed by armed groups, further complicating evacuation efforts. The United States and Caricom, a regional trading bloc, have pledged to help form a transitional government in the country, but that plan has yet to materialize. For now, armed groups once linked to corrupt politicians control at least 80% of Haiti’s capital, according to a United Nations estimate.

By the end of March, at least 1,600 Americans had filled out the State Department’s crisis intake form for help fleeing the country. In response to the growing urgency of the requests, the State Department last month began chartering private helicopters to help evacuate Americans from Port-au-Prince to the neighboring Dominican Republic. However, the citizens must go home themselves after reaching the Dominican Republic and reimburse the US government for their flights from Haiti.

Michèle-Jessica Fièvre, better known as MJ, was born and raised in Haiti and now lives in Florida. She eagerly awaits word from her dozen relatives, from young children to the elderly, who live in Port-au-Prince and Pétion-Ville, a hilly suburb of the capital.

“Every day we wake up to reports of increased violence, vandalism, looting and the tragic destruction of homes, shops and essential public services,” Fièvre told NBC News. “No place seems safe; from police stations to schools, churches and even the National Library, every location is a potential target.”

A woman carrying a child flees from gunfire
A woman carrying a child flees gunfire in Port-au-Prince on March 20. Clarens Siffroy / AFP – Getty Images file

Two of her relatives are U.S. citizens, but they refuse to leave their native relatives behind, she said. Her family is in a waiting situation, Fièvre says, wondering whether they will be able to flee the violence both physically and financially. She said helicopter flights from Port-au-Prince are expensive and risk being attacked by armed groups. Those hoping to evacuate fear what will happen if they travel from their homes.

“Even those with possible routes are paralyzed by the enormity of the task. Furthermore, the psychological impact of uprooting someone’s life under such dire circumstances cannot be overstated,” Fièvre said. “Some of my relatives are stuck without access to resources, visas or passports; the feeling of helplessness grows. They are unable to leave a neighborhood that has become a hotbed of danger, where they witness atrocities and constantly fear for their lives.”

While some coordinate costly private helicopters from Port-au-Prince, non-governmental organizations are also coordinating the rescue efforts. Project Dynamo, an international nonprofit search and rescue organization, said it has received more than 100 requests for help from Americans in Haiti since it began operations there in March. By the end of that month, Project Dynamo had rescued 53 people, from toddlers to the elderly, from Port-au-Prince by helicopter.

“This was an incredibly complicated and lengthy operation – with many hurdles, hazards and hazards,” Project Dynamo Bryan Stern said in a news release. According to the press release, veterans faced gunfire and small fires while traveling twice to a dusty football field to rescue people by helicopter. “But once again we were able to answer the call and save dozens of Americans trying to survive an unimaginable situation.”

Armed groups increased their violence after Henry repeatedly failed to hold elections and announced last year that elections would be postponed again until 2025. The groups are behind the escalation of killings, rapes and kidnappings since the assassination of the democratically elected President Jovenel Moïse. in 2021, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program at Uppsala University in Sweden.

According to a January UN report, more than 8,400 Haitian people were killed, injured or abducted in 2023, a 122% increase from 2022. The current crisis is unfolding as Haiti continues to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake in which people died. about 220,000 people, and another deadly earthquake in 2021.

John and Missy Tennant, of Greenfield, Indiana, worked for years to bring their adopted sons, ages 13 and 15, from Haiti to the U.S. The adoption process took a long time and the unrest in Haiti has further complicated their situation. attempts. Now that the adoption has been finalized, the couple hopes the State Department will expedite or eliminate the passports and visas needed to bring the children to their new home.

When they speak to their sons on the phone, the Tennants say, the teens sound optimistic, but their fear is clear.

They’ve “told us about situations where they hear gunfire and hide under their bed,” Missy said. “Mothers and fathers should be able to protect their children and make things better, but we can’t really do that. We’re doing everything we can with where we are and sounding the alarm. Begging, screaming at the top of our lungs, just saying, “Please help us get our children out of this deadly situation!”

“This is now a life or death situation. That’s how it is.”

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