Cité Soleil, the “City of the Sun”, is one of the darkest places in Haiti: it has been for years the poorest neighborhood in the poorest capital of the poorest country in America.
And, also, one of the most insecure.
In fact, in 2004 the UN called it “the most dangerous place in the world”, before the peacekeeping forces of the international organization began a long and controversial mission in the Caribbean nation that would last more than a decade.
And although after a while the government and international troops gained relative control over the neighborhood, in recent weeks it has become the epicenter of the violence that is shaking Port-au-Prince.
A fight between two gangs has left at least 234 dead -according to UN data-, dozens of wounded, houses burned and thousands of people locked in their homes without access to water or food.
The testimonies that come from there speak of corpses decomposing or being burned in the streets, while the bullets cross the zinc plates, cardboard and old wood that form the houses where entire families are crowded.
While the fighting between criminal groups continues, international organizations fear that the escalation of violence could aggravate the humanitarian crisis that the country is already experiencing.
“We are very concerned about the situation in Cité Soleil. The supply of essential goods there is quite a challenge. The needs are high and include water, food and essential medical care, ”he tells BBC Mundo. Jean-Martin Bauerdirector for Haiti of the UN World Food Program.
The clashes began on Friday, July 8, apparently due to a territorial fight between gangs called G9 and GPEP, who are vying for territorial control of the commune.
But Bauer explains that while Cité Soleil has been the core of the violence, the entire capital has been rocked by kidnappings, roadblocks, rapes, murders and the forced displacement of thousands of people.
The new wave of violence in Port-au-Prince broke out a day after the first anniversary of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, whose perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.
Since Moïse’s death, the country has experienced a growing political crisis and power vacuum that has led criminal gangs to tighten control of much of the capital and other major cities.
An overcrowded community
It is one of the first inhabited areas of Haiti seen when planes begin to land at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture airport.
From the air, Cité Soleil looks like the remains of a bombardment over a burned forest.
Despite its proximity to the center of the capital, it began to be inhabited a little over 60 years ago and, from its origins, it was an area for the poorest of the poor.
They currently live there near 400,000 peoplein an area less than 22 square kilometers.
It began to get populated during the François Duvalier government and every time someone lost their house due to fires, storms or other disasters, they ended up living there.
It was initially called Cite Simone, in honor of the then first lady, Simone Duvalier; and due to its proximity to the port and the industrial zone, it soon also became a neighborhood for workers, sugar workers and the Export Processing Zone.
But with the crisis that the country experienced in the 1990s after the coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide the industry collapsed, unemployment increased and criminal gangs began to emerge and take control of the neighborhoods, to the point that, in a few years, they became the real police, law and (dis)order of the commune.
the poorest neighborhood
In Cité Soleil there is only electricity at times and they do not have drinking water or sewers: only a few canals full of garbage that cross the neighborhood and where it is possible to find everything from feces, clothes and old plastic to dead animals and corpses.
A UNICEF study concluded that more than 20% of the children there were severely malnourishedmost of them do not go to school and one of the most common foods sold are clay cookies called “galette”, made with mud, salt and margarine.
“Living in Cité Soleil is quite difficult. It is an area where there is a high concentration of poverty and malnutrition. It is a low-lying area, frequently flooded, densely populated by very poor people struggling to make ends meet, and which has unfortunately become the scene of gang violence,” explains Bauer.
Crime rates are so high that it is popularly said that in Cité Soleil everyone wants to be in a gang and that gangs are always open to recruiting new members: data from human rights organizations say that in the neighborhood there are more than 30 criminal groups.
In 2010, when an earthquake left Port-au-Prince in ruins, it took nearly two weeks for authorities to reach Cité Soleil.
Years later, Bauer explains, only local churches and NGOs go there to offer help.
However, since the disputes between the gangs began last week, it has become increasingly difficult for them, to the point that even trucks with drinking water have been blocked.
A country metaphor
Poverty also has scales in Cité Soleil: in the poorest place in Haiti there are also areas where people live even worse.
This is the case of the neighborhood of brooklynwhich is also where the heaviest fighting and highest number of deaths have been reported in the last week.
There lies the call Cite Cartonor “Cardboard City”, a village made basically with waste taken from the garbage.
For many, Cité Soleil, its poverty, inequality and structure are a metaphor for the capital and the country as a whole.
In fact, many have noted that the struggle for power in Cité Soleil is a reflection of the political situation in the country on a large scale: since Moïse’s assassination, the interim president has been experiencing a crisis of legitimacy and is questioned by members of civil society that also aspire to govern.
But not only what happens in the country is reflected in Cité Soleil: what happens there also often involves the whole of Haiti.
“It’s like a Russian doll with many different dimensions: you have people who are directly affected by the violence, then there are the people who are affected by the impacts of the violence and so on until you cover the whole country that in one way or another he is affected by what is happening in Cité Soleil”, comments Bauer.
The UN official recalls that he recently met a farmer in the north of Haiti who told him that he feared that he would not be able to sell his harvest because he would not be able to send the products to the capital or to other regions: in fact, the south of Haiti has practically incommunicado for almost a year due to gang activity and kidnappings.
“Even if you are not in Port-au-Prince, in an area that is not as affected by violence, the fact that the gangs control the exits to the city has had an impact on commerce, on employment and on daily life. All of these things affect food security and the ability of the population to earn an income and buy the food they need,” she states.
This week, the World Food Program warned that the increasing violence, coupled with rising costs of living in Haiti over the past year, were putting more than a million people “one step away from famine.”
UN data shows that 4.5 million people in Haiti (over 40% of the population) are acutely food insecure and of them 1.3 million are in a state of emergency.
“Violence is making it difficult for people to make a living and at the same time the price of food is skyrocketing. So this means that we are very concerned that Haitians are essentially suffering from a food crisis that is getting worse because of these two factors,” adds Bauer.
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