To go or not to go: How AIDG Haiti handled the uncertain security situation

When we first heard news of the food riots in Les Cayes on April 3 and 4, we told our Haiti team, Elizabeth Myre and Sunny Periera, to stock up on supplies (non-perishables, phone cards, water, gas, propane, etc.) in case protests spread to the North. When news came that demonstrators were storming the presidential palace in the capital Port-au-Prince, we discussed (not for the first time) the threshold level of violence and insecurity that would require a temporary withdrawal of staff.

No riots had yet occurred in Cap Haitien, but we were getting reports from friends and colleagues that small groups of people were throwing rocks at vehicles crossing the main bridge to get out of the city. This bridge, which passes by Shada and leads to the airport and Dajabon, is a major choke point. We also heard through the grapevine that burning tires had been placed across roads here and there.

As this was our first experience with widespread unrest in a country that we’re working in and because our colleagues in the civilian corps of the UN mission seem particularly concerned, we decided to send Beth and Sunny to the DR for the week. The reason we erred so strongly on the side of caution was related to the possible choices of action:

  • Stay put in Cap if it’s pretty certain that calm will resume in a week or so. Just stock up and stay inside.
  • If the security situation deteriorates, get a direct flight to Fort Lauderdale/Miami on Lynx Air, or
  • Get an indirect flight to U.S. or elsewhere via Port-au-Prince or
  • Overland to the Dominican Republic on public transport or with a driver or
  • Boat/chartered flight to DR or
  • If other routes prove impossible and staying in Cap is untenable/exceedingly dangerous drive into the countryside to Borgne. It tends to stay calm there and we have many friends who we could count on there.

Each choice had a different level of safety/ease associated with it and also different time-frames for decision making. To make things more difficult, we were getting lots of information on what was happening in the capital from news reports to blog posts to even uploaded cell phone/video footage [here and here]. A lot of the information about the situation in Cap however was part truth/part rumor, reports passed from friend to friend in a real life game of telephone.

Leaving Cap Haitien

Sunny is Brazilian and didn’t have a visa for travel to the U.S. at the time of the crisis so a flight to the States wasn’t an option. FYI: Sunny has a visa now. She got it during her and Beth’s trip to the DR. Luckily, the process which normally takes several months only took a week! In future, we will require all interns to have some type of US visa, be American citizens or otherwise exempt from requiring a visa to enter the United States.

As the violence in Port-au-Prince escalated, flights from Cap to the capital were canceled then PAP airport shut down altogether. Even if they had remained open, friends in the know advised us that heading towards the center of violence was probably not a good call, especially as the domestic and international airports are separate by a cab ride.

With flights unattainable, we looked into overland travel as the next prudent option. President Rene Preval hadn’t delivered any speeches to the public at this point. By April 8, we weren’t sure whether riots would spread to Cap at all or how quickly the security situation would deteriorate if they did. So we opted for safety first especially with the memory of friends’ experiences during the recent election violence in Kenya. We had heard rumors that burning tires and other such roadblocks cut off parts of the road from Oamaninthe to Dajabon, DR. In the end, a friend helped Beth and Sunny get a ride to the border. It cost a pretty penny though.

Serendipity

Another reason a trip to the DR was in order was because we needed fiberglass and resin for the biodigesters we would be building once Chase, our biodigester intern, arrives. He’s scheduled to head to Haiti from Guatemala this Saturday. Recently we were having a lot of trouble getting these supplies in Cap or from the capital. Beth and Sunny obtained them easily from the DR and brought them back via taxi, taptap and taxi. Also, through a curious twist of fate, Sunny happened to meet a woman who imports resin and catalyst while waiting in the consulate for her visa. She might be able to get stores to us wholesale. Hopefully this isn’t a “too good to be true” situation.

Update from Beth now that they are back in Cap

Now that Sunny has a visa to go to the US, we both agree that we’re willing to stay in Cap until it becomes clear that we’re in danger here in the city. The issue before was that the route to the DR also had to be safe.

To be determined: What help the UN mission in Haiti can offer to foreign nationals.