PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Foreigners with guns are met with hostility in most countries in the world.
But the departure of armed soldiers and police from Haiti in 2017 after nearly two decades on the streets helped criminals seize control of much of the country. Gangs have carried out so much robbery, rape and kidnapping that Haitians on Tuesday welcomed news that the United Nations Security Council had approved deployment of an international armed force to Haiti.
News of the vote — which authorized a one-year deployment of a Kenya-led force to help quell violent gangs — dominated conversations and radio and TV programs.
“It’s like God heard Haiti’s prayers, and he’s sending help,” said Wensley Johnson, 40.
Johnson had to flee his home this year after gangs pillaged the community where he lived, a community built by people who survived Haiti’s 2010 devastating earthquake. Worried about the never-ending gang violence, Johnson sent his son and stepdaughter to live with his mother in the countryside, but the construction worker struggles to care for them.
Meanwhile, construction has been halted at several sites because gangs have seized control of those areas, and Johnson has been unable to find work.
“Stability would be key for everybody to get back to their normal activities,” he said, adding that he’s relieved that a foreign armed force will be deployed.
“Our forces don’t have the manpower to fight the gangs with the guns that they have,” he said.
Haiti’s National Police has launched several operations against gangs, but the department doesn’t have enough resources or staff, with only some 10,000 active officers for a country of more than 11 million people.
The Kenya-led mission would be the first time in almost 20 years that a force would be deployed to Haiti. A 2004 U.N. mission ended in 2017.
The upcoming mission would be led by Kenya, with Jamaica, the Bahamas and Antigua and Barbuda also pledging personnel. The non-U.N. mission would be reviewed after nine months and be funded by voluntary contributions, with the U.S. pledging up to $200 million. Kenya’s foreign minister has said the force could be deployed in early January.
“They should be here sooner than January,” said Peter John, a 49-year-old carpenter who heard the news on a small black-and-white radio perched in his shop, where he makes beds, tables and cabinets.
He worries that gang violence will only keep escalating.
“One morning you hear about guys taking over an area, killing and raping kids, leaving everybody without a home, and that’s scary,” he said. “A force that’s coming into the country would be able to fight back.”
In the meantime, he said, Haitians will take care of gangs the only way they know how: though a violent uprising known as “ bwa kale,” which has killed an estimated 350 people since it began in April.
“The population will put an end to their lives. They have people suffering too much,” he said of gangs.
More than 2,400 people have been reported killed from January through mid-August this year, with more than 950 kidnapped and another 902 wounded, according to U.N. statistics. Violence against women and children in particular has risen.
Among those kidnapped and tortured are friends of Jannette Boucher, a 37-year-old store owner who sells women’s and children’s clothing. She herself escaped a gang attack earlier this year while driving alone. Gangs shot at her car, breaking a window as she pressed the gas and fled.
“Oh, yeah, I’m excited,” she said of the upcoming deployment. “It’s time that Haiti gets some real support.”
More than 200,000 Haitians have lost their homes to gangs who set fire to communities and rape and kill residents in a bid to wrestle territory from rival gangs.
Previous foreign interventions in Haiti have left many wary and angry.
A U.N. stabilization mission launched in 2004 was marred by a sexual abuse scandal and the introduction of cholera, which killed nearly 10,000 people.
“They leave bad memories in Haiti,” Jean-Pierre Elie, a 60-year-old private teacher, said of previous interventions.
He said he supports the upcoming force because “it’s unbearable to live in Haiti,” but worries the past might be repeated.
“The soldiers are sometimes out of control,” he said. “It’s like they don’t have anyone to report to. They do whatever they want.”
Johan Lefebvre Chevallier, Haiti director of the nonprofit organization Mercy Corps, said that he hopes the foreign armed force would respect human rights and restore some stability.
“The worst outcome would be for this new intervention to further increase violence and burden those facing the brunt of this security and humanitarian crisis,” he said.
Critics of the new mission also have warned of past abuses by Kenya’s police force, but supporters say the resolution authorizing the force contains strong language to prevent abuse, and calls for correct wastewater management.
The U.N. Security Council approved the resolution nearly a year after Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry and 18 top government officials requested the immediate deployment of a foreign armed force to fight gangs overwhelming the country.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.