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Priest-doctor in Haiti says violence threatens country's future

'Haiti has become a bandit state' and people want to leave, says Passionist Father Richard Frechette

MIAMI | Violence in Haiti not only complicates earthquake relief, it threatens the future of the country, said a U.S. priest who founded a medical mission and orphanage in Haiti.

"Everyone without exception is at risk," Passionist Father Richard Frechette said of the security situation in Haiti.

"Haiti has become a bandit state in the face of the inability of the Haitian government to govern," he told Catholic News Service. "The future is bleak, and Haitians want to leave Haiti. It will be an enormous effort and investment to turn things around."

He said Haiti's government-led negotiations with gang leaders to allow for transit of aid after the Aug. 14 earthquake was short-lived. The magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed more than 2,200 people, according to Haiti's Civil Protection Agency, and emergency response to the region has been slow due to safety concerns along with shipping complications and Haiti's overall crippled economy.

At the end of August, gang leaders — including Jimmy Cherizier, a former Haitian national police officer who is wanted in several massacres and goes by the name "Barbecue" — reportedly pledged to allow humanitarian aid to pass between Port-au-Prince and Haiti's southwest, where the quake occurred.

"The truce is with one gang at the road to the south — the only land route to the earthquake affected areas; the truce is no longer respected, and that gang is calling for the resignation of the (Haitian) prime minister," said Father Frechette, a medical doctor serving as president and executive director the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti near Port-au-Prince.

But the violence is not just along the routes from Port-au-Prince to the southwest. Throughout Haiti, the priest said via email, gangs are engaged in killing, kidnapping and banditry, especially in metropolitan Port-au-Prince.

In Cap-Haitien, in the north, Father Andre Sylvestre, a priest who founded an orphanage, was robbed and killed by gangs after completing a bank transaction, media reported.

Father Frechette said part of his foundation's ministry "is to bury the destitute dead, at our own hospitals and from the Missionaries of Charity and city morgue."

"Picking up the dead on the streets is done with some regularity, since it is not uncommon to find dead on the streets from gunfire, accidents and sickness. When there is a massacre, it is a question of picking up multiple dead," he said. 

Father Frechette is also president of NPH Haiti/St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, the only hospital in Haiti that treats childhood cancer.

More than half of all patients at the hospital are admitted for infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV, while 25% are admitted for noninfectious diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and kidney infections. Most patients admitted are also malnourished.

Father Frechette said the damage from the 2021 earthquake is mostly hidden off road, hard to reach, and largely unattended to in rural and farming areas, whereas the 2010 earthquake was largely urban and paralyzed the entire county. But following the Aug. 14 quake, St. Damien's "took in limited numbers (of earthquake victims) because we have a major COVID-19 center and did not want to expose earthquake victims," the priest said.

"We have had two COVID peaks: April to July of 2020 when we received 1,500 patients at our center, and May to August of 2021 when we received 1,800 patients at our center. During these peaks we had 100 functioning COVID beds," Father Frechette said. "In between and currently, we have 15 functioning COVID beds. Not many children were affected (by COVID-19)."

Vaccines have been available in Haiti since July 2021, but they are largely ignored by the population, the priest added.

Haiti has suffered a series of crises beyond the pandemic, earthquake and violence. On July 3, Tropical Storm Elsa tore off roofs, downed trees and flooded farms. Four days after the storm, 28 foreign mercenaries, including specially trained Colombian soldiers, assassinated President Jovenel Moise, creating a vacuum in the country's governance.

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