International medical charity Doctors Without Borders has temporarily closed its hospital in a violence-plagued area of the Haitian capital, saying it could no longer guarantee the safety of staff and patients amid clashes between armed groups.
The organisation – known as MSF, according to its French-language acronym – said on Thursday that “heavily armed rival groups” were engaged in violent battles “just metres” from the hospital compound in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Cite-Soleil.
“We are looking at a war scene just metres away from our hospital,” Vincent Harris, an MSF medical adviser, said in a statement.
“While the hospital has not been targeted, we are a collateral victim … since the hospital is right on the frontline of the fighting,” said Harris, adding that MSF’s teams “cannot work until security conditions are guaranteed”.
Gang violence has been on the rise across Port-au-Prince in recent months, after the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise worsened widespread political instability and created a power vacuum.
The United Nations said in November that armed gangs controlled approximately 60 percent of the capital, where they were carrying out a campaign of murder, kidnappings and sexual violence in an effort to expand their influence and “terrorise” residents.
On Thursday, MSF said the violence has spread to every part of Port-au-Prince, displacing many residents who are now “living in dire conditions and with limited access to clean drinking water”.
The organisation also said it had documented as much as a tenfold increase in the number of gunshot victims seeking treatment at an emergency centre in Turgeau, an area in the centre of the city.
“Since the fighting resumed in the neighbourhood of Bel Air on 28 February, we have received many children, women and elderly people,” Dr Freddy Samson, MSF’s medical activity manager, said in the statement.
“It’s terrible to see the number of collateral victims of these clashes. It’s hard to tell how many people are wounded in total across the city because many people are too terrified to leave their neighbourhoods.”
Late last year, Haiti’s acting prime minister, Ariel Henry, appealed for an international armed force to be deployed to Haiti to restore order and quell the violence.
The demand enjoyed the backing of the United Nations and the United States, but it also set off new protests, with many Haitians rejecting the prospect of foreign intervention. Some Haitian civil society leaders also have said Henry lacks legitimacy and they have called for him to step down.
Since then, Washington-led efforts to mount “a non-UN mission led by a partner country” to Haiti have stalled, as President Joe Biden’s administration so far has failed to get another nation to agree to lead such a force.
Instead, the US and its allies, most notably Canada, have issued a string of sanctions against Haitian officials and others accused of helping the gangs destabilise the country and engage in illicit activities, including drug trafficking.
In an interview with the Reuters news agency this week, Canada’s top general raised concerns about the ability of the Canadian military to lead a mission to Haiti.
“My concern is just our capacity as we rebuild, as we move to brigade level in Latvia,” Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre told Reuters on Wednesday. “There’s only so much to go around … It would be challenging.”
Eyre also said in the interview that the solution to the crisis in Haiti must “come from the host nation itself”. “They have to own the solution,” he said.
In addition to the barrage of sanctions, in January Canada announced that it had delivered armoured vehicles already bought by Haiti to the national police force in Port-au-Prince to help in the battle against the gangs.
“We have been clear that Canada was not going to stand by idly as the gangs and their supporters continue to terrorize vulnerable populations in Haiti with impunity,” Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly said in a statement at the time.
“We will also continue to increase its pressure by imposing corruption sanctions against Haitian elites. Canada call on the international community to follow our lead and help [the] Haitian people as they face complex challenges and violence in their country.”