Haitians shot dead in street and there’s no one to take the corpses away

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — On a ride through the gang-controlled streets of Haiti’s capital on Friday, past an improvised barricade, the motorcycle taxi reached a crossroad. First came the smell — of something burning. Then, the sight: a corpse, charred black, lying in the middle of street, its bones and feet sticking out of the pile of ash.

The night before, Jimmy Boursiquot, a carpenter who lives nearby, heard two gunshots. Peering carefully out his window, checking his watch — it was 8:24 p.m. — he saw two men drive away, leaving the body behind, not far from a university administration office and one of Haiti’s largest telecommunications companies. A few hours later, he said, the men returned and burned the remains.

The streets of Port-au-Prince reek with the stench of the dead.

It’s a grisly new marker of the violence and dysfunction in this beleaguered Caribbean nation of 11 million people. In the absence of a functioning state, violent armed gangs have taken control of more than 80 percent of the capital, the United Nations estimates. Gunfire crackles at all hours. Residents who dare leave their homes stumble across bodies that have been left where they fell.

Port-au-Prince reached a high of 92 degrees on Friday. The smell of decaying corpses, human rights activists say, has driven some people from their homes. Others have taken it upon themselves to move or burn the bodies. Because who else will?

Even before the past week, public services in the city were sharply limited. Trash piled up in its slums; cholera had resurfaced. The gangs terrorized the population with systematic rape, indiscriminate kidnapping and mass killing, all with impunity.

Then attacks on two of the city’s largest prisons last weekend freed thousands of inmates, including some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Now the gangs, reinforced by returning comrades, have attacked the city’s airport and main port. They’ve torched at least a dozen police stations.

Intense fighting erupted Friday night between the gangs and police in the Champs de Mars, the largest park in downtown Port-au-Prince. Gangs threw Molotov cocktails at the interior ministry headquarters and fired gunshots at the presidential palace.

Hospitals are closed; security forces are hard to come by. The prime minister, traveling abroad to rally support for an international police force, was unable this week to return to the country.

The gangs are in control.

As gangs attack a critical port, ‘Haiti will go hungry soon’

One morgue director said he has received 20 calls in the past week from residents asking him to pick up bodies. Four calls came in on Friday, Lyonel Milfort said. He has refused all of them.

With gangs barricading the streets, Milfort said, venturing out has been impossible. Other morgues have come under attack, he said, and he doesn’t want to risk the lives of his staff.

Milfort has been in the business since 2002. Violence has forced him to halt operations before, for one or two days — but never, he said, for an entire week.

“What I’m witnessing today is unprecedented. It’s been too long,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking to go around and see bodies being eaten by dogs and see the corpses covered with sheets.”

Romain Le Cour, a political scientist who has conducted research in Port-au-Prince in recent weeks, said the unretrieved bodies reflect “extremely high levels of violence, extreme pressure on the population and a feeling of hopelessness and abandonment.”

Le Cour, a senior expert with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, described the violence and instability as among the worst Haiti has suffered in decades. The 2010 earthquake left 220,000 people dead, but there was a national and international response to give Haitians a sense that the crisis was met with action, Le Cour said.

“Right now, what is terrible is the sense of abandonment. You have no one to turn to,” he said. Prime Minister Ariel Henry has been silent. Haitians don’t even know where he is; with the airport under attack as he was attempting to return from Kenya, he flew instead on Tuesday to Puerto Rico.

“You have to do what you have to do,” Le Cour said. “But you have to do it alone.”

Haitian leader, unable to get back home, faces pressure to resign

“The person who speaks the most in Haiti right now,” he said, is Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, “which is insane.” The former police officer, now the country’s most powerful gang leader, has issued Henry an ultimatum: resign or face a civil war.

The presidency has been vacant since the still-unsolved 2021 assassination of Jovenel Moïse; the National Assembly has been empty since the last lawmakers’ terms expired last year. That leaves Henry, unelected and unpopular, to lead what remains of the government.

For the past year, U.S. officials have pressed the 74-year-old neurosurgeon to work with a transitional council to help bring elections, a senior State Department official told The Washington Post, but he has shown an “unwillingness to cede real power.” Last week, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and Caribbean Community leaders urged Henry once again to make concessions.

At the end of the meeting, the official said, a statement was issued “that gave Haitians the erroneous impression that the international community supported Henry staying in power until 2025, which may have exacerbated other factors and contributed to the out-of-control gang violence that we see today.”

As the violence this week became “untenable,” the official said, the United States and Caricom proposed an expedited transition of power in which a transitional council would appoint an interim prime minister and Henry would step down. Henry would not be involved in the organization of that body, the official said, a key change in the U.S. stance toward him.

Henry has not yet publicly accepted the proposal. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under State Department rules, said the conversations with him are ongoing.

While the prime minister remained in Puerto Rico, people here began re-emerging from their homes on Friday in search of food and fuel. Cars and small buses returned to the streets. The few gas stations that were open saw lines stretching for several blocks long. At a street market, a man in a police uniform could be seen exchanging gas with a resident, an apparent sign of an emerging black market for fuel. The only other police officers visible were guarding the shuttered airport.

Late Sunday morning, Jonathan Lindor passed by three corpses lying side by side in the road. They had been men, the 27-year-old said, and around his age. Each had been bleeding, apparently from bullet wounds.

All were barefoot. In Haiti, it’s not unusual for a killer to remove victims’ shoes after shooting them.

“I didn’t eat meat for the rest of the day,” Lindor said.

He returned to the area on Wednesday. Neighbors, unable to bear the stench, had burned the remains. Another witness said the group eventually placed the remains in a ravine.

“The smell is untenable,” Lindor said. “We don’t know who can pick them up, so people don’t have any other choice than to burn them.”

The residents, Lindor said, were part of a neighborhood vigilante group — a mix of off-duty police officers and civilians, often armed with machetes or knives, who take turns watching the neighborhood.

Lindor had seen bodies burned on the streets of his city before, including during last year’s Bwa Kale movement, when large vigilante groups hunted down and killed alleged gang members. But he had never before seen conditions this dire, with an absent government leaving citizens to clear the streets of corpses themselves.

“You cannot sleep in peace,” Lindor said.

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