The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Haiti buries a president, but its long-term crisis lives on

People go about their lives in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood on the day their slain president was buried. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A few blocks from the gang-controlled neighborhoods where Haiti’s warlords have been massacring residents and torching homes, it is hard to separate sanctuary from perdition inside the red metal gates of St. Martin and St. Yves Catholic Church.

The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse remains one of the world’s most gripping whodunits, with his funeral on Friday seen as a touchstone moment for his widow, his followers and government ministers who are now in charge of the nation.

But for the throngs of Haitians who crammed into this churchyard in recent weeks — some of the 19,000 fleeing war-zone-like conditions across swaths of the capital — his killing is really just one more death.

The real national crisis, they insist, is playing out in places like St. Martin and St. Yves, where more than 1,100 impoverished Haitians — refugees in their own capital city — are sharing nine bathrooms, some of which don’t work. Famished, the people scrummed at 11 a.m. on a recent morning for a breakfast of watery gruel served from the back of a truck, jostling for position while calling out “Some for me, some for me.”

A topless woman tried to cover her breasts as she bathed from a bucket in a corner. A thin man brushed flies from a rotting slice of soursop. A naked child played with a bottle cap. An unaccompanied minor — sexually assaulted in the camp, according to aid workers — is sleeping under the same roof as her rapist.

Emmacula Cylus, 50, stood in a dirty blue smock, holding her hands skyward in anguish. She had arrived here last month, just a few weeks after discovering her 20-year-old son, Andy, shot dead in the street not far from their Port-au-Prince home.

“The gangs,” she said. “They even took his sneakers.”

Haiti buries its slain president

Her 19-year-old daughter, Kethlene Cylus, died of an unknown disease two weeks later, after a stay in an ill-equipped hospital. Last year her husband, Emmanuel, was shot and killed while exchanging euros for local currency in their gang-controlled neighborhood.

“I am alive by the grace of God, but for what?” she said.

Standing in the churchyard, Yslande Paul, 38, said she’d answered a knock on the door of her home not far from St. Martin and St. Yves at 8 a.m. on June 17. Gang emissaries, she said, had told her and her family to leave.

“When we came back at noon, they had burned down the house and everything in it,” she said. “We have nothing left.”

“So the president is dead,” she said. “It is not good that he died, but what does it mean to us? Why is everyone focusing on the assassination? That is not our real problem.”

Inside shanties with corrugated tin roofs, in bougainvillea-lined villas on jade-colored hills, at village cafes and urban restaurants, Haitians watched televisions and listened to radio broadcasts of the funeral, held under heavy security at Moïse’s ancestral home near the northern city of Cap-Haïtien.

Israel Jacky Cantave, a former spokesman for the prime minister’s office who was in attendance, said gunshots were fired and protests erupted outside the Moïse family compound. Tear gas and black smoke entered the compound. Cantave said some attendees were heard loudly denouncing Léon Charles, head of the National Police, which is investigating the assassination. The U.S. delegation to the funeral left the event early and was safe, according to the White House. Haitian media reported the outbreak of broader violence in Cap-Haïtien, including attacks on businesses.

The president’s distraught relatives spoke one by one, and suggested he’d had “traitors” in his ranks. In her first public comments on the assassination, Martine Moïse, the president’s wife, who was wounded in the attack, issued a defiant speech in which she said her husband had been “abandoned and betrayed.” Without offering details, she additionally denounced Haiti’s’ “oligarchs.” While she cautioned against further political violence, she said, “We lost the fight but the war continues. We need justice for you.”

The president’s son Joverlein said his father had been “living among traitors.”

“I know that sometimes they had you see my father as a tyrant, as wicked, the devil, and they spent a lot of money to push that narrative,” he said. “But I also know that on the morning of July 7 when my father’s eyes closed, your eyes were opened. You see clearly now. That’s why you are going to wipe your tears and have courage so you can honor the memory of your leader."

Cazeau Leeotdy, a 25-year-old waitress, watched the throngs of the bereaved on television at a Port-au-Prince restaurant.

“There is a sadness in our hearts today. This man was our president, and he died like this," she said. “It makes me think about what kind of future is waiting for me and my family.”

More than a president, many Haitians on Friday mourned a shattered nation, one they said had been mismanaged by foreign powers, including the United States, and is rotting from within.

“The NGOs and international community never really invested in strengthening Haitian institutions,” said Edouard Roberson, a Haitian scholar. “The result is what we have now. A failed and dysfunctional state. There is no hope for Haiti. The conditions under which things could get better do not exist.”

What to know about Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse

In the aftermath of the killing, life is returning to what had already become a new normal of extraordinary hardship. Vendors are walking the streets again, balancing baskets on their heads with fruit and snacks for sale. At the port, commuters are again crossing town by water to avoid no-go zones along the coast. Amid a shortage of gas — blamed on contract disputes and the difficulty of transport in a capital torn apart by violence — frustrated car owners have returned to the snaking lines outside service stations.

It can take two hours to fill a tank.

“Who do I blame? The people in charge of the government, who are basically the same ones we had before the assassination, and the United States, for supporting them,” fumed Jean Minuty, a 70-year-old physician.

He’d been waiting 20 minutes to fill his blue Toyota Highlander in downtown Port-au-Prince.

“What is life like here?” he shouted out his window in anger. “Well, I’ll tell you. We cannot even go across town for fear of being shot or kidnapped in our cars! How is this living? How is this fair for Haitians?”

Haiti’s gang violence has been building for years. But it has sharply escalated in recent weeks, amid a struggle for power between Moïse and his rivals and the economic downturn sparked by the pandemic. Last year, 297 people died in the capital’s gang wars and wave of insecurity, according to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince.

In June, the country recorded roughly 150 gang-related deaths.

“You need to compare the gangs of Haiti to groups like the Islamic State in Syria,” said Gédéon Jean, the center’s director. “They also have connections to politicians and ministries. But in the areas they control, they kill whoever they want, they rape whoever they want. You can compare these areas to war zones.”

In the days after Moïse was killed in a hail of 12 bullets, a tense calm settled over the capital as gang leaders appeared to reassess allegiances and objectives. But in some quarters of Port-au-Prince, kidnappings and turf wars are building anew.

The escalating violence and a lack of results from the billions of dollars in aid earmarked for Haiti in the years after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake have led dozens of charities and nongovernmental organizations to leave.

One that is still here, Doctors Without Borders, was forced to close its burn unit in the gang-ridden streets near Cité Soleil, the country’s largest slum, in February.

“The shootouts were right outside the walls,” said Julien Bartoletti, Haiti mission chief for Doctors Without Borders.

The organization consolidated operations at a hospital in the relatively safer Tabarre neighborhood of the capital.

On Thursday, five of the six patients in the small intensive care unit were suffering from gunshot or knife wounds. In another ward of the hospital, Berylne Gabriel, 40, tended to her 13-year-old son, Makenley Vilford, who’d taken a bullet in the shin.

He’d been caught in the crossfire of a turf war while going to the outhouse in front of their home.

“The gang members walk down our streets, with big guns, little guns, guns of every kind,” she said, throwing up her hands. “So we live for today. We hope things get better, knowing they won’t.”

Human rights leaders in Haiti have long alleged a link between Moïse and the gangs — an accusation he denied. After the president’s slaying, however, Jimmy Cherizier — considered Haiti’s top warlord — demanded justice for the “cowardly” assassination, claiming he would unleash a wave of “legitimate violence” against the nation’s elites.

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The developments suggest a rougher road ahead in a country where U.N. agencies say 46 percent of the population is already experiencing acute or severe food insecurity — among the highest in the world. Aid agencies are facing massive hurdles to address a mounting humanitarian crisis. Open gang warfare on National Road 2 — the nation’s major western and southern artery — has forced agencies to resort to helicopters to access hard-hit parts of the capital and beyond.

“The gangs are blocking the main road to the south by randomly shooting on cars,” said Christian Cricboom, Haiti director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“A nurse was killed in an ambulance two weeks ago,” he continued. “We need to move food, medicines by air and sea because of the insecurity and risk to staff, but we do not have enough funding for additional helicopter service or boats. In the internally displaced person site at Carrefour [west of the capital], 1,000 people went hungry yesterday.”

Before Moïse’s assassination, kidnappings spiked across Haiti, with 171 abductions recorded in the first four months of this year, a 36 percent increase compared with the same period last year, according to U.N. data.

Abduction is no longer just a risk for the rich. Mechanics and the sons and daughters of street vendors are being held and ransomed for sums as small as $100.

The sense of a collapsing state is leading Haitians like Joseph Molder — a 38-year-old lawyer who was kidnapped last year and held for nine days — to search for ways to immigrate to the United States. His family, having sold property and borrowed money to cover his $40,000 ransom, is now deeply in debt and struggling to pay back relatives and neighbors.

“We have a police force that is losing the battle for the country,” he said. “It is only a matter of time before the gangs control everything. I want to leave Haiti and live the American Dream.”

Up a hillside on the road toward the president’s home and assassination site, hundreds of blind, deaf and disabled Haitians who fled the gang wars in recent weeks are sleeping on dirty mattresses and floors at a middle school.

Derosier Saint-cile, 70, sat in a wheelchair, resting her head on her arm, exhaustion on her face.

Unable to walk, she had been carried to safety by her son when a firefight erupted in their neighborhood last month and police, they said, began torching their homes in a former Red Cross shelter. The authorities claimed it had become a hotbed for gang members.

In her many years, she recounted in throaty Creole, she has never seen Haiti worse. From 1957 to 1986, during the ruthless years under dictators François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, “the violence was more targeted, it was their enemies who had most to fear,” she said. During the 2010 earthquake, her house caved in and she lost everything, but there was hope, she said, that the nation would rebuild.

Now, she said, “instead of dying under bricks, we are dying with bullets.”

“The president is dead,” she said, with a wave of her hand. “Those of us who still live are the ones in misery.”

Widlore Merancourt contributed to this report.

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