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Haitians are desperate after Kenyan court blocks police force deployment

A police officer inspects a public transportation vehicle at a checkpoint in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.
Odelyn Joseph
A police officer inspects a public transportation vehicle at a checkpoint in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Radio stations across Haiti got jammed with calls just hours after a court in Kenya blocked the deployment of a U.N.-backed police force to help fight gangs in the troubled Caribbean country.

Many callers wondered and demanded: What's next?

Few know.

Uncertainty and fear have been spreading since Friday's ruling, with violence reaching new records as gangs tighten their grip on Haiti's capital and beyond.

"Absent a robust external mission that would be deployed very soon, we are facing quite a tragic scenario in Haiti," warned Diego Da Rin with International Crisis Group.

Gangs that control an estimated 80% of Haiti's capital have in recent weeks attacked and seized power of previously peaceful communities, killing and injuring dozens, leading to widespread concerns that they will soon control all of Port-au-Prince.

The number of people reported killed last year in Haiti more than doubled to nearly 4,500, and the number of reported kidnappings surged by more than 80% to nearly 2,500 cases, according to the most recent U.N. statistics.

Meanwhile, Haiti's National Police is losing officers at "an alarming rate," while those still in service continue to be overwhelmed by gangs, according to a U.N. report released this week. More than 1,600 officers left the department last year, and another 48 were reported killed.

In addition, equipment sent by the international community to help bolster an underfunded police department has crumpled beneath heavy fights with gangs. Only 21 of 47 armored vehicles were operational as of mid-November, with 19 "severely damaged during anti-gang operations or broken down," according to the U.N. report. The remaining seven vehicles "are permanently disabled," it stated.

"The situation has gone overboard. Enough is enough," said a man who identified himself as Pastor Malory Laurent when he called Radio Caraibes to vent about Friday's ruling. "Every day, you feel there is no hope."

Lawyers react as Justice Chacha Mwita delivers judgement on a petition against the deployment of Kenyan forces to Haiti, at Milimani court in the capital Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.
Brian Inganga / AP
Lawyers react as Justice Chacha Mwita delivers judgement on a petition against the deployment of Kenyan forces to Haiti, at Milimani court in the capital Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

Kenya's government said it would appeal the ruling. Still, it's unclear how long that might take and whether other countries who pledged to send smaller forces to boost the multi-national mission would consider going at it alone.

Among those who planned to send forces were the Bahamas, Jamaica, Belize, Burundi, Chad and Senegal.

"All I will say at this time is that this is a major setback for the people of Haiti who yearn to have a stable country to live in," said Roosevelt Skerrit, Dominica prime minister and former head of a Caribbean trade bloc known as Caricom that has sent recent delegations to Haiti to help resolve the unrest. "The decision of the Kenyan court warrants an emergency meeting of the friends of Haiti to determine with the Haitian people the plan B."

Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis did not return messages for comment, nor did the office of Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Hugh Todd, Guyana's foreign minister, told The Associated Press that the trade bloc will likely meet soon to discuss the implications of the ruling as it awaits word from Jamaica.

"We will have to see if there is any legal space for us to operate," he said, referring to whether there are any other legal options that might allow Kenya and other countries to move forward.

U.N. officials have not commented since the court ruling.

Edwin Paraison, a former Haitian diplomat and executive director of a foundation that seeks to strengthen ties between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, said he would be surprised if international leaders didn't have a plan B.

He said the ruling, however, would allow Haiti to implement its own solutions to gang violence, and that he believes it has enough resources to do so.

"One entity that has never been mentioned, and we don't understand why it's never been mentioned, is Haiti's military, even if it's at an embryonic stage," he said.

Paraison noted that more than 600 soldiers who recently received training in Mexico could work alongside with police.

"We have to look at the resources we have at the local level to deal with this situation," he said.

But such resources might not be enough, said André Joseph, 50, who owns a small convenience store in downtown Port-au-Prince, one of the more dangerous areas of the capital.

The people who live and work around his store are very protective of him and his business, he said.

"I hope that someone can fight for them also," Joseph said. "The international force would be the best thing for these people to have here, and for me, too."

But in the absence of one, he would like to see the money set aside for the multinational mission go to Haiti instead so it can rebuild its own forces and fight gangs.

Many Haitians grumbled about Friday's ruling, including Marjorie Lamour, a 39-year-old mother of two who sells women's lingerie out of a small container she carries with her. She is forced to keep her load light in case she must run from gangs.

"Some days I'm here all day, and then there's a shooting and I'm running, and I come back home without a cent," said Lamour, who called the ruling "a major crime" against Haitians.

She noted that she and her family have been forced to flee two different homes already because of gang violence, which has left more than 310,000 Haitians homeless.

"I don't want to have to run a third time," she said, adding that she doesn't make enough money to properly care for her children. "Feeding my kids a meal once a day is hard enough. I hope God can do something for us because no one is doing anything."

Da Rin, with International Crisis Group, noted that one silver lining is how the mission backed by the U.N. Security Council did not specify that Kenya would be the one to lead it. He said it opens the possibility that another country could take the reins without additional meetings and approval from the council.

As Haiti awaits the possibility of a plan B, Da Rin said he worries that the situation could only worsen, especially given the recent arrival of former Haitian rebel leader Guy Philippe, who has not supported the Kenyan-led mission.

"With this news, the desperation of Haitians to see a way out of the security crisis increases," he said. "They may make some slightly radical decisions."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press