April 12, 2024

Hunger in Haiti is spreading amid gang violence, aid workers warn


More and more people are going hungry in Haiti, aid workers, doctors and missionaries are warning with increasing urgency, as the Caribbean country struggles to find a way out of political impasse and an epidemic of deadly gang violence.

An American missionary whose organization provides food and water to the needy in gang-controlled areas in the capital Port-au-Prince told CNN he had already met people who had not eaten in a week.

In some parts of the city, there is no food left to buy and nothing left to market for those whose livelihoods depend on small-scale trade, said the missionary, who requested anonymity for his own safety. “One by one, items disappear forever. There is no supply chain, so when flour, sugar, salt, rice, etc. run out, they run out.”

Following the announcement of Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s resignation last month, the country’s political leaders have not yet formed a new government and the confusion has stalled a long-awaited multinational security mission. Meanwhile, gangs have cut off Port-au-Prince from the rest of the world, making it “virtually impossible” to provide aid to at least 58,000 children suffering from the most dangerous levels of malnutrition, UNICEF said.

The crisis in the capital is being felt across the country, which is heavily dependent on imports shipped through Port-au-Prince. According to the United Nations, nearly 5 million people in Haiti suffer from acute food insecurity – defined as when a person’s inability to consume enough food poses an immediate threat to their life or livelihood.

“This is the worst humanitarian crisis in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. I don’t think that has sunk in,” Jean-Martin Bauer, country director for the World Food Program for Haiti, told CNN last week.

For the past two months, Port-au-Prince has been cut off from the world as resources dwindle. Roads leading in and out of the city have been blocked by gangs, and the city’s international airport and port are also closed. Hospitals have been destroyed and warehouses and containers storing food and essential supplies in the city have been broken into in recent weeks, as the social fabric unravels.

Last month, a key container terminal – crucial to Haiti’s food import supply chain – was attacked and looted. A UNICEF container containing essential items for the survival of newborn babies and their mothers – including ventilators and other essential supplies, as well as water equipment – was also broken into, the children’s organization said.

“Thousands of children are on the brink, while life-saving supplies are ready to be delivered as the violence stops and roads and hospitals are opened. This malnutrition crisis is entirely man-made,” Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director, said in March.

Dr. Ralph Ternier, chief medical officer of the Zanmi Lasante medical organization, says he recently saw some of the worst cases of child hunger of his career while working at the organization’s medical facility in Mirebalais – about an hour’s drive northeast of the capital .

He knows the problem is much bigger in Port-au-Prince, but laments that there is no way to reach these children. Ternier compared the capital to another country, explaining that it is almost impossible for someone like him to enter the area, and that rampant gang attacks and kidnappings leave many Port-au-Prince parents without medical care for their children can find.

“If you have a child who is malnourished and you are in Port-au-Prince, there is not much you can do. It is rare to find a decent hospital because many have been destroyed,” says Ternier

Pedestrians walk through an empty street near the earthquake-destroyed cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, March 25, 2024.

In Haiti’s rural Lower Artibonite Valley, north of the capital, Hopital Albert Schweitzer is seeing an unprecedented number of cases of acute malnutrition, especially among children.

The Artibonite unit is second only to the nation’s capital in gang violence and also faces a lack of access to essential services, the hospital’s CEO Jean Marc deMatteis told CNN. “We’re completely cut off from all supplies, food, medical supplies, you name it,” he said.

Normally the hospital sees seasonal spikes in malnutrition cases, but now community health workers are seeing malnutrition in much higher numbers, especially among children, during regular clinic visits, he said.

Further fueling fears of hunger in the country, farmers from Artibonite – known as the breadbasket of Haiti for its fertile lands and rice fields – are struggling to grow and sell their crops amid insecurity. A March 15 World Food Program (WFP) analysis found that food production is shrinking, with farmers saying they are afraid to go into the fields as bandits steal their crops.

In the Artibonite department alone, approximately 100 armed attacks have been committed in the past two years – the second highest number of such incidents of violence in the country, after Port-au-Prince.

“Conflict and hunger are closely linked,” said Laure Boudinaud, Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping Officer for WFP in Haiti. “In a predominantly agricultural country like Haiti, the population suffers in one way or another when production zones are abandoned.”

“The correlation between abandoned fields and the presence of armed groups and violence is clearly visible,” she added.

Haitian citizens try to obtain supplies at the Liceo Marie Jeanne shelter in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 21, 2024.

Humanitarians rush to fill gaps in Haiti under difficult circumstances. Bauer, the head of the WFP, said his organization reached about half a million people in the country with food aid last month.

“We would like to do more for some of our programs, but overall we have been successful in reaching the people who need it most. We have prioritized and it has worked for us,” he said.

But WFP will not be able to continue its food programs in Port-au-Prince for long given the current supply chain problems. According to Bauer, the agency only has a few weeks of food left in the city.

“What we are doing now is relying on our existing food supplies. These are the supplies we distribute to vulnerable neighborhoods and hot meals to displaced people,” he said.

“It will take a few weeks and we will be at zero if we don’t reopen the port and bring in more imports.”

Shortfalls in donor funding are also complicating efforts to help the country’s most vulnerable. The United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan 2024 has received only 6.5% of the necessary funding. Current funding for WFP in Haiti also has a long way to go, according to Bauer.

“Between now and the next six months we need $100 million to keep our program going and this is one of the reasons why you are not seeing greater numbers (of aid recipients reached) – the funding is not there,” he said.

“People have been focused on other issues right now – and that’s understandable,” Bauer added. “But you won’t have peace in Haiti if half the population doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from.”

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