Failure to disarm anti-Aristide gangs creates problems for relief agencies

Failure to disarm anti-Aristide gangs creates problems for relief agencies
November 24, 2004 Administrator
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Gonaïves: extreme concern about lack of security – Haiti Support Group press release, 10 November 2004

The Haiti Support Group is extremely concerned about the situation in Gonaïves, and, in particular, the lack of security that is preventing humanitarian organisations from supplying relief to the victims of the catastrophic floods that engulfed the city in September.

During October, six of the 11 non-governmental organisations providing humanitarian relief in Gonaïves were assaulted by violent gangs. Since then, while international (and national) media continues to focus on events in the capital, the situation in Gonaïves appears to be seriously degenerating. Just last weekend, armed members of the Artibonite Resistance Front attacked the main police station, driving away the police, freeing prisoners, and stealing weapons.

As long ago as 28 September, the Associated Press reported that street gangs were holding up aid convoys and provoking rioting at distribution sites, subjecting tens of thousands of weary storm survivors to life-threatening delays in getting food and water. The AP wire stated, “The failure of Haiti’s US-backed government to disarm the gangs, including the Cannibal Army that started the uprising that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has created a climate of insecurity that jeopardises lives…”

Although the United Nations sent several hundred additional troops to the city, no disarmament of the illegal gangs has been carried out, and, not surprisingly, the problem of insecurity has not gone away.

On 9 October, armed men fired into the air and smashed rocks into a vehicle carrying four people from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The aid workers screeched off, smashed into a nearby truck but managed to escape on foot. MSF coordinator, Sophie Nasserre said. “We can’t continue to work like this when humanitarian workers who don’t even have food are attacked like this.”

On 17 October, the Miami Herald reported that Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, and the French Red Cross, had moved all their workers back to the capital, a pullout prompted by an attack on a French Red Cross vehicle the previous week. CARE did not pull its foreign staff out of Gonaïves, but reported that its employees had suffered minor injuries and that several of the organisation’s cars had been damaged.

At the end of the month, several vehicles of the French Red Cross and Médecins du Monde came under attack, and, on 3 November, two trucks carrying food and supplies for non-governmental organisations were attacked and looted en route to Gonaïves.

On 5 November, the United Nations’ World Food Programme and the CARE organisation condemned the deteriorating security in the city, and threatened to suspend aid to the area. “If safety (in Gonaïves) does not improve, we will be obliged to suspend operations,” said CARE director, Abby Maxman. Because of the situation, the British organisation, Oxfam, has reduced its operations to the distribution of drinking water.

In the most recent incident, during the night of 5 November, members of the Artibonite Resistance Front attacked the police station, forcing officers to flee. Prisoners escaped and looters broke into the building, carrying away weapons, furniture and other items. The Resistance Front, once a street gang known as the Cannibal Army and which helped lead the anti-government rebellion earlier this year by attacking the Gonaïves police station and killing police officers in January 2004, has recently reconstituted itself as a political party, the Front for National Reconstruction, under the leadership of Guy Philippe.

The Haiti Support Group – in common with a great number of other organisations and individuals in the UK – was deeply distressed by the loss of life and suffering visited on the people of Gonaïves during the September floods. Today we are extremely concerned that the ‘gun law’ that has been allowed to prevail in Gonaïves since the beginning of the year is now preventing citizens from receiving the humanitarian relief they need to help them recover and rebuild their lives.

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