“It could explode at any time”: photographing the gang war in Haiti | Photography
TBoth images are as striking as they represent: the cause and effect of Haiti’s growing woes. In one, a masked and armed gangster watches over a rooftop in Port-au-Prince, a few blocks from the presidential palace. In the other, a family recently displaced by gang violence takes refuge in a school that now houses dozens of families, a stone’s throw from their homes.
“Port-au-Prince is almost entirely controlled by gangs, and we wanted to show the efforts of people who run businesses to survive,” said Rodrigo Abd, 45, an Argentine photographer with the Associated Press who took the images. . âBut I was also trying to show another side of Haiti, to avoid the stereotypes that we always repeat, to show the violent without violence, or the poor without poverty.
Haiti is in the throes of overlapping crises. The country’s president, Jovenel MoÃ¯se, was assassinated in early July in circumstances that remain mysterious. A magnitude 7.2 earthquake destroyed the country’s rural south in August. In September, thousands of Haitian migrants living across South America were deported from Texas after years away from their homeland.
Meanwhile, in the political vacuum, local rights groups estimate as many as 165 gangs continue to terrorize residents, setting up roadblocks and kidnapping rich and poor for ransom. Aid deliveries to the earthquake-stricken south are often turned back by militiamen who, in October, kidnapped a group of 17 American and Canadian missionaries and their families. More than 600 people have been kidnapped in Haiti this year, more than triple the total of last year. Fuel shortages have added to the woes, especially in a country without a reliable electricity grid.
âYou can feel an aggressive landscape, that it’s a place that could explode very easily and at any time, because the situation is so bad,â says Abd, who has photographed war zones around the world.
Abd has worked several times in Haiti, first visiting the Caribbean country in 2004, just before the coup that removed then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from his post in a new wave of instability.
Aristide had authorized local gangs to carry out his will in poorer neighborhoods, and some of the groups operating today have their roots in his presidency.
“Here, now we are back to what it was then, where in some communities neither the police nor any other type of law enforcement institution can enter, and therefore the population becomes l ‘hostage of armed gangs,’ explains Fiammetta Cappellini, Haiti’s representative for the AVSI international charity. âHaving no other benchmark, people develop a kind of cohabitation with the gangs who have become the ruling authority of the neighborhood.
Despite the threatening pose of the masked gangster on a roof terrace in the image of Abd, the photographer saw a similar desperation as that of the terrorized inhabitants.
“Most of the people we interviewed said that being in a gang was only a means of survival,” says Abd, adding that he had hoped to photograph gang members without masks, but turned away. met with a categorical refusal. âIt was very difficult to understand the story from the outside; we spent three weeks trying to understand and talking to gang members to understand why they were trying to challenge the territory and fight the government.
“I had the impression that these are almost normal guys who put on the mask and take the gun when they have to defend territory or extort someone, or kidnap someone,” says Abd. âI think if the situation improves, they might even go back to being normal citizens.
âIt’s not just a story that’s been going on for two or three years, but one that’s getting worse now,â he says. âThere is a relationship between the gangs, the city and the people who always have to move from one place to another.
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