As the first bursts of gunfire rang out, the women from La Saline slum grabbed their kids and fled for cover.
Shootings are common here, but this time, there was no outrunning the full-on battle between five rival gangs in the heart of the Haitian capital.
The turf war that broke out last November lasted 14 hours and ended with more than two dozen people dead, women and girls gang-raped and scores of dwellings razed to the ground.
There is not much left of Lovely Saint-Pierre’s home, aside from some slabs of concrete and two sheets of rusty metal which provide scant protection from the blazing sun as she recounts the nightmare that began eight months ago.
“When the shooting started, my husband stayed behind,” the 32-year-old said matter of factly. “We just have walls made of sheet metal. The bullet went straight through and killed him.”
Around 5,000 people live in La Saline, which has long been plagued by turf wars between gangs battling for control of one of the largest marketplaces in Port-au-Prince.
A United Nations report on the November violence said at least 26 people were killed and 12 reported missing. Haitian human rights groups put the death toll at 71.
The horror of the slum’s denizens was magnified when the gangs decided to follow up on the gun battle by setting fire to their meager dwellings.
“They occupied our neighborhood for three days. I don’t know why and I have no idea why they decided to burn everything,” said Valioa Jean-Charles, 42.
“We called the fire department but when they showed up the gangs opened fire on them, so all our houses burned down,” she said.
Her husband dead, her tiny shop a smoking ruin, Lovely Saint-Pierre found herself destitute.
“I left my three older kids with my sister. I can’t live with her myself, she has a husband and I am older than her,” she said, trying to explain her plight. Instead, she has spent the past eight months sleeping in a nearby market.
No help for rape victims
Among the survivors of the massacre are 11 girls and women who were gang-raped, some in front of their own young children, human rights groups said. They have received no medical support or psychological counseling.
La Saline and other slum districts in the heart of the capital are regularly subjected to gang shoot-outs. The underfunded police do nothing, even though bursts of automatic gunfire erupt less than a kilometer from the presidential palace.
The residents of these poor areas are increasingly left to fend for themselves as fellow countrymen ignore their plight.
“Some people simply refuse to consider these people, who are from a lower social class, as citizens. Since it’s a reality that doesn’t affect them directly, they don’t worry about it,” said Evelyne Trouillot, a writer and member of the Gathering for a Dignified Haiti movement.
The inhabitants of La Saline push back against stereotypes held by many who are better off that they are all somehow affiliated with violent gangs.
“I’ve nothing to do with these gangs, neither me nor my son,” said Josette Magloire who lost her 24-year-old son in the massacre. “When I think about what I’ve lost, I feel so bad.”
“They have destroyed my life,” she said. —Source: Agence France-Presse