By Milo Milfort
Port-au-Prince, May 26 (EFE).- A month after the start of a gang war that forced thousands in Haiti’s capital to flee their homes, returning families are finding their former residences have been reduced to rubble and ashes.
One hard-hit neighborhood is Croix des Mission, a district located at the northern entrance to Port-au-Prince.
Some families have been trickling back there over the past week due to a lull in the brutal battles pitting the heavily armed 400 Mawozo and Chen Mechan gangs, coordinated armed attacks that have resulted thus far in at least 188 deaths (including at least 92 people unaffiliated with the gangs) and thousands of displaced people, according to the United Nations’ latest figures.
Many houses were burned and those spared the flames were looted of every last item of value.
Bertha St-Felix, a 38-year-old pregnant mother of four, fled the violence and now, with her home burned to the ground, will have to move in with one of her sisters, she told Efe.
“I’ve lost everything. I wasn’t able to salvage anything. Not even my children’s birth certificates,” she said next to one wall of her destroyed home.
Amid the rubble are vestiges of a former life: what’s left of a TV set, pieces of a plate and a bed frame completely deformed by fire.
Since the gang war erupted on April 24, dozens of homes and vehicles have been set ablaze and numerous victims have been burned alive in the street.
The UN said last week the armed violence had reached “unimaginable and intolerable” levels in Port-au-Prince, with instances of beheadings, the burning and dismemberment of bodies, the killing of minors accused of being informants for rival gangs and the gang rape of children as young as 10.
Bertha and her family returned to Port-au-Prince last Friday after running out of money in Mirebalais, a nearby city where she had fled with her children and a brother, joining hundreds of other displaced people taking refuge from the fighting.
She decided to go back because schools have reopened and she wants her two children accompanying her to finish the academic year.
Like her, 26-year-old David Corneille made his way back to his home district because he has nowhere else to go.
“This is our house. We had to go back,” he told Efe at his father’s reopened store.
The gradual return of families is restoring some life to Croix-des-Mission, where neighbors can be heard greeting one another and the familiar sounds of public transport fill the air.
Yet even as some have returned to their homes, several dozen other people are living in sub-human conditions in a square in the capital’s Tabarre neighborhood or taking shelter in various area public schools.
Those who have come back fear the imminent return of the 400 Mawozo gang and their allies, who control large swaths of territory along the highway that leads to Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic.
“We’re still afraid. We live in fear. But you know, this is our area. We grew up here. I’ll have time to leave if the war starts up again,” Bertha said.
Yves Corneille, David’s father, said he returned home because he has no other place to stay with his three children.
“I’ve come back but I’m afraid. I don’t know what to do. We just pray that nothing bad happens,” said the 56-year-old man, who like many other local residents says he has lost all confidence in the government.