Children Trapped Amid Gang Violence Find Safety and Security
Dozens of children were rescued from the throes of violent gang confrontations that had trapped them for three harrowing days in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince
PORT-AU-PRINCE, 16 October 2023 - In a daring rescue mission, the last 60 students and instructors from La Saline Salesian School were successfully evacuated from their school, where they had been trapped for three days amidst the violent clashes between rival armed groups in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince.
"Gunfire between the rival gangs began to echo through the streets on that fateful Friday morning, and it showed no signs of abating," Sister Altagaas Mathias, in charge of the girls' school, explained.
We were genuinely afraid that stray bullets might breach the school, endangering the children. We instructed all the children to crouch low, seeking refuge beneath tables. At that moment, confusion reigned, and the children were profoundly traumatized, especially as the sounds of gunfire seemed perilously close.
Amid uncertainty, 14-year-old Myrlande* (not her real name), a student at La Saline Salesian School, shared, "Fear consumed us, and we began to voice our concerns, longing for rescue, yearning to return home. I tried to console the younger ones, who were on the brink of tears. As confrontations between armed groups escalated, the grim reality set in that we would spend the night at the school."
"The dedicated nuns rallied to manage the first night. Thankfully, we had some provisions, including food and water. Despite the ongoing skirmishes outside, we managed to achieve some rest." She explained.
But with the dawn of a new day, the violence outside intensified. "As we faced the prospect of enduring a second night, panic took hold, especially among the youngest children."
I witnessed men at the rear of our school, pounding forcefully on the door. I genuinely believed they intended harm. Tear gas filled the air, making it difficult to breathe. I couldn't sleep at all during the second night
As the gang violence escalated, UNICEF received an alert from its partners in the field and, along with the Ministry of Education, initiated measures to extract the children ensnared in what had become a "war zone."
"While the violence continued to rage, UNICEF made an initial effort to deliver food and water to the school, while actively negotiating to secure a safe corridor for the children's evacuation," explained Bruno Maes, UNICEF Representative in Haiti.
"Continuous communication with the school principals was maintained to ensure the children felt secure, despite the alarming conditions outside. In partnership with our on-ground partner, IBERS and the Combite pour la Paix et le Developpement, we successfully negotiated a secure corridor for the children late on Sunday afternoon. A bus was chartered, and their evacuation took place under optimal safety conditions," Maes said.
"We exited from the rear of the school, traversing several narrow streets before reaching the bus. It was a moment of unbridled joy for all of us. We felt liberated," Myrlande recounted.
It was three days filled with stress, emotions, and uncertainty. It was not an easy decision, but we succeeded in removing them under the safest conditions. You can't fathom the sense of liberation these children felt upon arriving in a secure place, far from the sounds of gunfire and violence. Witnessing their smiles again is the most rewarding aspect of this challenging experience
"UNICEF operates in some of the world's most challenging environments to reach the world's most marginalized children. It is not just a slogan; it is our daily reality here in Haiti," Maes underlined.
"This event is a poignant reminder of the persistent violation of children's rights due to ongoing armed violence. Ultimately, children in Haiti need peace to thrive. It is critical for children that efforts to end today's seemingly endless armed group violence are redoubled. But children cannot wait for protection – while armed group violence continues, we must never accept attacks against children," he concluded.
UNICEF is currently providing the children with all the support they need, including psychosocial support, and facilitate family reunification. A hotspot of armed violence in metropolitan Port-au-Prince in recent weeks has put thousands of families at risk. Nearly 200,000 people, half of whom are children, are now displaced across the country, with 130,000 in the capital alone. The situation remains highly volatile, with constant threats of armed attacks looming over the entire city.