Two neighborhoods in this immense slum went to war for 48 hours this month over a bucket of drinking water.
By the time the machetes were sheathed and the rocks and rusty shock absorbers used as weapons were tossed back into the stinking gutters, the street battles of June 2 and 3 had left seven persons dead, scores wounded and more than two dozen houses bashed to the ground.
International relief agency officials said the feud in Cite Soleil was but one sign of a nationwide lawlessness that set in after the Feb. 7 collapse of the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier.
The officials said the disorder has forced them to reduce vital daily school lunch programs by half across the country and cut back other food and development projects. Relief agencies reported food shortages and spreading hunger.
The officials also said the slowness of the governing council to take control and implement an emergency plan to revive the economy is prolonging the unrest and heightening the risk of an all-out famine in coming years.
The council, led by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, has been reluctant -- and sometimes unable -- to rein in Haitians still celebrating and testing the limits of their new freedom after the Duvalier family's 28 years of repressive rule.
Many Haitians joined 10 days of sporadic demonstrations earlier this month, in which two persons were killed, because they were disappointed that Haiti's severe poverty persists unchanged despite the Duvaliers' fall. But banditry, gang warfare and local vendettas with no political cause are also on the rise.
U.S. diplomats and development officials said they fear increased anarchy, with frustrated Haitians continuing to impede government and international organizations from addressing the underlying economic crisis, further deepening the causes of discontent.
In Cite Soleil, a slum that sprawls across a dank salt bog on the edge of Port-au-Prince, the dispute started when a young girl from a dockside neighborhood called Wharf ventured into a new World Bank-financed housing development next door to get a pail of water. Wharf, with about 8,000 people, has no fresh water supply.
"The people in the housing project said they wanted to use their water before anyone else," said community president Wilner Mombrun, 27. "That's where the misunderstanding started."
The girl was stoned and driven away.
That provoked the Wharf residents' resentments against the equally penniless Haitians who had chosen to sign up for the World Bank's 500 small cinder-block houses. Disguised in women's clothes, about 50 Wharf men stole into the project at night, raping two young girls and a 58-year-old woman, witnesses and relatives of the victims said.
During two days of frenzied knife duels that followed, the police never responded to repeated calls, Mombrun said.
Countrywide, the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) is giving out only half of the 700,000 daily meals it normally daily to schoolchildren and new mothers in this nation of 6 million, according to its director here, Jerome French.
AID food is distributed by private American groups like CARE and Church World Service, the international assistance arm of the U.S. Protestant churches. CARE director Ellis Franklin said his group cut back after four trucks carrying food or construction materials were held up by robbers north of Port-au-Prince during April and May.
"We chalk it up to a situation where you have no elected government and the people feel they can do pretty much as they wish," Franklin said. CARE has removed all insignia from its trucks and storehouses.
Church World Service head Peter Graeff said a crowd assaulted a truck belonging to his group on a southern roadway in May, stealing 300 bags of food. One looter was shot to death by a soldier riding guard on the truck.
On May 29, Graeff said, a mob of famished, jobless laborers chipped with rocks and hammers through the thick cement walls of the agency's warehouse in the capital. They were stopped from looting by police.
"They know they have always gotten the short end of the stick," said Graeff. "There is a relaxation of public order and they see their chance."
AID chief French said food "distributed by alternate means" (that is, stolen) since Feb. 7 totals $1.2 million of a program funded at $7.8 million per year. Six of the 10 main relief warehouses were sacked or destroyed. About 10 percent of 1,800 schools where food was stored or handed out were damaged by rioters.
Without the lunches, rural school attendance is dropping. Hunger grows acute, relief leaders said, in a nation where about three-quarters of the population already goes to sleep with a gnawing in the stomach.
Said French: "A lot of the recent disorders take on an immediate political content. But the root is that the people are hungry."
Over the weekend, political disturbances subsided but mob violence continued. In the Port-au-Prince tenement of Christe-Roi Friday night, residents turned on a neighbor, Canada Fils, 60, wildly accusing him of kidnaping children. He was burned alive in the streets before hundreds of onlookers.
AID officials said many foreign donors have held back from starting new longer-term development projects, citing the unstable situation.
"Haiti is on a track toward self-destruction," French warned, because of years of uncontrolled tree-cutting and soil erosion in the countryside. Of 47 percent of the nation's land that is now intensely cultivated by peasant farmers, 14 percent is deemed too barren and rocky to be arable by international standards.
"Without a much larger degree of foreign assistance targeted to reverse the degradation of natural resources," French said, "the likelihood of a real famine will increase." He urged that Haiti be included in emergency programs for drought-stricken Africa agreed to by the United Nations in May.
In late May, a southern coastland named Les Cayes was inundated by rainwaters plunging down from surrounding hilltops that had been left bare by Haitian loggers. At least 25 residents were killed and tens of thousands lost homes and crops.
But in contrast to food thefts in other towns, when Haitian authorities flew two helicopters with relief aid to Les Cayes on June 7, an indignant crowd turned the food away, demanding permanent jobs and farmland instead.
"No one has said to them: 'These are your needs and here is what we're going to do to solve them,' " said CARE's Franklin. "That's what would put the people at ease."