In Haiti, children who fled gang wars face uncertain future

·3-min read

Skipping ropes, dominoes and some light manual work: this is how the 300-plus Haitian children at the Saint-Louis de Gonzague school --  transformed into a shelter -- try to forget, at least for a while, the gang violence that forced them to flee their homes.

Separated from their parents, they pass time between organized activities by resting on the foam mattresses laid out on the concrete floors of the school in the capital Port-au-Prince.

"They are traumatized, but if they start to play a game of football, they become children again," said Sister Paesie, director of the Kizoto organization, which is responsible for their accommodation in the institution run by Catholic priests.

"But when we start talking to them, we realize that they have seen horrible things," the French nun, who has lived in Haiti for 23 years, told AFP.

Nearly two weeks ago, the violent shantytown of Cite Soleil in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, where these children lived, turned into a battlefield between rival gangs.

More than 471 people have been left dead, wounded or missing, according to the latest UN count. And many more had to flee.

The vast majority of the rescued children had their homes burned by gang members, according to Sister Paesie.

"A mother had her little baby in her house; he was burned to death inside. A little girl saw her father immolated in front of her," she said.

Only a few parents have found shelter with their children. Many could not make it out of the conflict areas, while others set up makeshift camps away from the fighting in public spaces. Due to a lack of space in the schools, the children were given first priority.

- Dangerous evacuation -

Among the refugees sheltering in the school are Dieula Dubrevil, a frail woman with drawn features and four children in tow. They had to flee their home in a hurry.

"The bullets were hitting inside my house," she recalled with horror.

"My husband went out, they beat him... injuring his head," added Dubrevil, who hasn't heard from her spouse for more than two weeks.

"Everyone helps us here in Saint-Louis," said Nicole Pierre, a mother of nine and one of the few adults who was able to flee the conflict zone at the same time as the younger refugees.

Her brother was not so lucky. He was killed, shot in the stomach while trying to leave their neighborhood. In total, more than 800 children and 20 adults managed to escape Cite Soleil with the help of religious groups, who staged a very risky evacuation operation.

"The headmistress of one of our schools was very brave, because the guys (gang members) had their guns pointed at her," said Sister Paesie.

"She talked to them, telling them that these were only children, and she managed to persuade them," said the nun.

The evacuees were gradually distributed across six shelter sites, including the Saint-Louis de Gonzague school. The school's chairs and desks have been pushed back along the walls, and the staff converted a class into a storeroom for clothes and hygienic products donated by NGOs and individuals.

Humanitarian agencies have also provided assistance: the World Food Program has notably provided more than 10,000 hot meals to all the sites where unaccompanied minors have been settled.

As much as they might savor this respite, the families know that it is only temporary. With the start of the school year approaching, they will have to leave their refuge in a few weeks.

"People who have family outside Cite Soleil will go to stay with them," but half of the refugees have "no alternative solution," said Sister Paesie, anxiously.

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