UNICEF’s Frontline Workers in Haiti
All UNICEF staff are mobilized to respond to the urgent needs of children and women affected by violence in Cité Soleil and in internally displaced persons sites. Here are their stories.
A new upsurge of violence has erupted as rival gangs wage fierce battles in Cité Soleil, in the metropolitan area of Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. Between 8 and 17 July 2022, the UN reported some 471 people were killed, injured or missing. At least 140 houses have been destroyed or burnt down, and around 3,000 people have fled their homes, including hundreds of unaccompanied children.
Since 20 July, UNICEF has delivered near 7 million liters of drinking water to meet the urgent needs of 30,000 people every day, distributed hygiene kits to serve 2,500 people and deployed two mobile health clinics to the Bois Neuf and Belekou neighbourhoods of Cité Soleil, to provide medical and nutritional care to more than 1,500 people, the majority of whom are women and children. In one week, UNICEF and the Haitian agency in charge of child protection IBESR have reunified 100 children with their families. UNICEF staff respond to the crisis in Cité Soleil at all costs.
One evening, I came home, and my son watched the news on TV, and saw there were 400 dead, wounded and missing in Cité Soleil. And there, he looked at me with his eyes wide open. Knowing that I often go to this area shocked him.
When at UNICEF, we learned that the crisis in Cité Soleil was surging, we tried to intervene immediately, and had the support of the UN Resident Coordinator. On security, we worked with the “Access” team. First, we had to contact the community leaders of Cité Soleil for their approval. The discussions were quite stormy, intense, because they had apprehensions about our work. As we are the United Nations, they were quite reluctant given the various reports that accuse certain actors of causing the insecurity.
As soon as we’ve got approval, we are responsible for bringing the team to the field, securing the staff and the assets. We follow several steps. First, a team goes there as “scouts” to survey and plan; then, we escort the trucks to the sites and in collaboration with the leaders of Cité Soleil, we secure the activity. It is as difficult to go out of Cité Soleil as to come in. You need some people’s approval, and we coordinate with them.
This crisis teaches us many things. For a long time, we considered Cité Soleil a “No Go” zone, classified as “red” where the United Nations could not have access. With this crisis, we have been able to create a bridge between us and the actors who are there and that’s very important. Failure to intervene means depriving vulnerable children and women of aid, while there may be mechanisms to create a humanitarian corridor. You just need to have the right contacts and talk to the real players.
I met pregnant women in Cité Soleil who had never seen a doctor despite being just a couple of weeks from their due date, and many malnourished infants with mothers who admitted they have been unable to breastfeed or find appropriate food for their children. The mobile health and nutrition clinics were really a ray of hope and many patients thanked us and asked us to come again soon. I was really proud of us that day.
The emergency section leads UNICEF’s response to the urgent needs of women and children affected by gang violence and who stayed within the conflict afflicted areas, as well as the internally displaced people who have ran from the conflict. Once we had the greenlight to access Cité Soleil, my team was the first on the ground the very next day to evaluate the needs, as part of a UN joint mission and ensure we could rapidly activate the first life-saving responses for children and their families.
Entering an unfamiliar territory where you know there is an ongoing conflict is never easy. All you can trust is that we have done our access negotiations well, and our security assessments and apparatus are in place. However ultimately for me, when I know that where I am going there are children who lack almost everything, and are just caught up in a bad situation, injured, unable to go to school or play, and are more scared than I am, there are no two thoughts about it – I go.
This work definitely takes a toll. My family and friends are definitely worried, but they believe in me and remain my lifeline. We have a WhatsApp group where I regularly update them and whenever I am in the field at the end of the day, I let them know I returned home safe. I also try to make some ‘me’ time especially on weekends if I’m not in the field. I pop a good album on Spotify and cook or open a novel to escape, or binge that series that all my friends have talked about for months and I never got round to.
Unfortunately, what’s happening in Haiti is not too different to what I have seen in other parts of the world. A child hearing gun fire on a daily basis, or witnessing family or close ones being killed, not being able to go to school, nor drink clean water, is no different in Haiti than it would be in Myanmar or Afghanistan or even in Ukraine. In the end, conflict leaves children the most affected, which is why we follow our core commitment for children in humanitarian settings to ensure providing them with full support.
Going to Cité Soleil for work does not worry me much. I’ve always trusted UNICEF. Interventions in sensitive areas are not held at random. Solid security assessments are conducted before. It’s not easy to go to the field, but it’s part of my mission and the desire to help is very present in me.
I’ve worked for UNICEF for 18 years as a driver, and in my opinion, this crisis we are living now is the worst. Even in 2004 during what was known as “Operation Baghdad”, insecurity was different from today where everyone is a target. As drivers, we go where the job takes us. Recently, I made a personal decision to diversify my routes between office and home. As I having to cross several sensitive areas including Delmas 32, I don't wear my uniform when I come to work or when I return home.
There’s a difference between what you see in the field and what you hear happening there. During the mobile health clinic we’ve held there recently, I’m not a medical doctor but I could notice most babies showed physical signs of malnutrition. A mother must be healthy to be able to feed her baby, but most women appeared to be in poor health.
A case that really struck me was an old lady who had come to the mobile health clinic. She had difficulty walking. She suffered from a gaping wound that had infected. We helped her pass quickly and get treatment. This reality is harsh. Some say that everyone who lives in Cité Soleil is an accomplice of the gangs. In my opinion, many people would leave the area if they could. But they are all in need and aren’t lucky enough to have someone to help them out, or to access an accommodation centre.
During my first mobile health clinic with UNICEF in Cité Soleil, a young man in his twenties came to see me, in private. He asked me to help him see a doctor because he was probably suffering from a sexually transmitted infection (STI). He looked overwhelmed. I helped him see the doctor discreetly. He was so grateful for the work we do.
Going to Cité Soleil or to any other sensitive area involves some risk taking. But it is above all a team effort that includes progressive assessment of the security situation. I trust my team. Missions are meticulously prepared. I'm not scared because if everyone does their job normally, everything goes well. And responding to the urgent needs of people in vulnerable situations requires transcending your limits.
As a communication officer, I am in direct contact with beneficiaries from vulnerable communities. I have admiration and respect for the vulnerable women and children I’ve met in Cité Soleil. They are heroes who continue to live in hope despite everything that is going on there.
Before the July 2018 crisis, my family and I would visit a provincial town every other weekend. But now everything is different, we have to travel abroad or just avoid going out. We stay at home most of the time. Children have a network of friends they hang out with, while adults meet from time to time for a drink or a meal during the day.
Today, with the media and social media, everyone is aware of everything. News travels fast and so does excitement. This crisis in Cité Soleil is different as it affects all sections of the society. Everyone is concerned. It seems like gang members are mostly adolescents and young people whose lives have been stolen. Under these conditions, I can hardly imagine them going beyond their thirties. The needs are in Cité Soleil, and so is the misunderstanding. These people are abandoned to themselves like the wretched of the nation.
I am deeply moved by the precariousness in which are women, children and the elderly whose basic needs in terms of food, water or health care are not covered.
One of the particulars of this crisis is, despite security risks and hardships in Cité Soleil, most of the population have remained there. Our response in terms of water, hygiene and sanitation consists of bringing drinking water in different neighborhoods with trucks taking several tours a day, and distributing hygiene kits composed of soap, water purification tablets water, etc. We also plan to clean the water canals and pipes to prevent flooding in the area.
It is dangerous to go to the field in Cité Soleil, but we trust the humanitarian corridor put in place, as well as the security instructions that allow us to access the site and bring aid to the people who needs it badly. We are always ready to leave when the security officer asks us to. I try to stick to the safety rules and instructions assigned to all staff to mitigate risks.
As my family is not with me in Haiti, the most important moment of relaxation is audio or video calls I make with them at the end of the day. I discuss with my wife and my children and I always look forward to seeing them on my days off.
I met an 11 or 12-year-old girl at a site for displaced children in Cité Soleil. She told me that to escape the area, she had to wear her school uniform. Their house had been burned down. She is very worried about her mother and her two little siblings who are stuck on the front line between two armed gangs.
In the current context where complex crises are multiplying, we do everything we can to find a humanitarian corridor. And we were able to distribute hygiene kits and water and organize mobile clinics to provide health care in Cité Soleil. The very idea of going to Cité Soleil can be terrifying. Many people are armed, and the security situation is very volatile.
With the prevailing insecurity in Port-au-Prince, my family and I live in constant stress, with the idea that every day, we are going to be kidnapped. When I leave the house for the office, my wife worries and calls me all the way. To protect her emotionally, I do not share with her my field missions, assessment visits or the distributions.
To other crises such as floods, earthquakes, or epidemics, we respond following patterns that we master. But this crisis of armed violence in Cité Soleil is very complex and does not respond to any of our methods of intervention. The gangs clash and the population are trapped there. And there is still a mistrust towards state institutions, NGOs and UN agencies, which always makes negotiations for a humanitarian corridor tense.