The armed men arrived at the two-story factory in Haiti’s rural Artibonite Valley, wielding AK-47s, followed by a hungry mob of hundreds.
After scaring off the two security guards, they forced their way in and put a knife to the throat of a Catholic nun, who until that moment had helped to run the solar-powered sewing factory and had been feeding nearly 1,000 hungry school children a day through her school.
Barking orders, the armed men demanded the keys to the upstairs where the solar panels, valued at over $400,000, were installed on the roof.
Over the next hour or so, they ripped out the panels, grabbed the 10 large batteries along with inverters, doors, an electronic computer-driven clock and anything else of value before letting the crowd in to pillage the rest: button making and sewing machines, tables and the food pantry.
“My first reaction was hungry people are going to take a lot of food, and I thought they were going to get the pantry,” said Jim Weber, the owner of the factory that was attacked last month, Pravi Apparel in Praville, a rural hamlet in the city of Gonaïves. “I didn’t think it was mob driven.”
Weber soon learned of more attacks and looting in Haiti’s rice-growing valley, just north of Port-au-Prince: more than a dozen government and parochial schools, markets, a United Nations World Food Program warehouse, another Catholic Church affiliated entity, the Caritas charity.
In a country where millions are already on the verge of starvation, the looting and pillaging of food warehouses belonging to the Haitian government, the United Nations, charity groups, supermarkets, schools and businesses during the recent and often violent anti-government protests, risk plunging Haiti deeper into despair.
Following the attacks, which began mid-September and have continued, some people, like Weber, have decided they are done and are leaving Haiti.
“I’m out not because I don’t love the people,“ Weber said. “I’m out because I cannot be effective… I can’t cough up that kind of cash every day. Even if I have crazy investors.”
Basic food ingredients hard to find
For Haiti, where 45% of the population was already nearing starvation in March, the looting is exacerbating the deepening hunger crisis. Food warehouses are empty. Supermarket shelves are bare. And since Sept. 12, no containers have been been unloaded at the seaports, leading shippers to temporarily pause all delivery of cargo, including food.
With a powerful gang alliance, known as the G-9, tightening its grip by barricading roads to the seaport and the capital’s main fuel terminal, Varreux, gasoline stations are empty, generators inoperable and hospitals and businesses are closed.
The effects are being felt everywhere. Just east of Port-au-Prince, through the territories of two violent gangs, a malnutrition center is reporting difficulty finding food to feed 1,000 kids daily and provide clean water. Children are now dying at an increasing rate, said Mickie West, a missionary with But God Ministries in the Ganthier community.
“We can’t get food for our schools, and people in the village are starving because they have no access to food or clean water,” she said.
From Jacmel in the south to Port-de-Paix in the far northwest, basic commodities are becoming increasingly hard to find, or afford when available.
“You can’t even find potable water to drink,” said Honorine Jean, 42, a teacher caring for two teenage nieces in the city of Gonaïves. “Day by day, the population is becoming worse off.”
In Gonaïves, the main city in Haiti’s agricultural breadbasket, prices have been skyrocketing for months, residents say. A can of rice, which once sold for $3.30, has now doubled; cooking oil and other provisions have increased by 40% and more.
“On most days you can’t find food to buy on the market,” Jean said. To make her point, she brings up making eggplant stew, the Haitian delicacy known as legume, as an example. The recipe requires a number of ingredients, including Haitian seasonings, tomato paste, vegetable oil, eggplant, carrot, spinach, cabbage, chayote, string beans and meat or conch.
“You may find half of the ingredients, but not all of them. All of the roads are barricaded and farmers aren’t going to leave their areas to come to the market in town. And if they have the products, you can’t afford it because the banks are closed and you can’t get cash to pay,” she said.
Jean’s hopes were further dashed when one of her nieces was recently denied a U.S. visa to attend college in Florida, despite an acceptance letter.
Jean used to supplement her teaching income, she said, with a side business selling Gatorade, pharmaceutical products from Canada and other items by the caseload.
But with a weak Haitian currency, record high inflation of 31%, a rise in the price of food imports and the inability of local suppliers to guarantee timely delivery of stock due to gang attacks, Jean said business has been on a downturn.
Since Aug. 22, residents of Gonaïves venture out of their homes only for emergencies, or on weekends. Jean said she understands the desperation—things have never been this bad.
“When all the looting is done, nothing has changed,” Jean said. “The population is still dying of hunger.”
It’s likely to get worse. Attacks like the one on the Pravi factory is fanning fears of an onslaught of business departures from Haiti, where companies flocked to in the past decade because of its cheap labor. The Caracol Industrial Park, which employs 12,500 factory workers in northeast Haiti, temporarily closed because it had no fuel to run generators.
More than half of Haitians facing severe hunger
In March, the U.N. estimated that a third of the 2 million people living in the Artibonite Valley were at risk of hunger, while 13% faced severe hunger.
A recent “Hunger Hotspots” report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and the World Food Program estimates that hunger will grow worse before year’s end.
“We suspect there will be a serious deterioration of food security for people, adding to and compounding the difficulties people are facing every day if not every hour,” said Ulrika Richardson, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Port-au-Prince.
Sister Margaret Michael and her fellow nuns with the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition said the order was feeding about 1,000 children daily between their school in Gonaïves, a nutrition program and a supplemental feeding program for orphans and abandoned children.
But after the nuns, who are from India, were forced to flee the convent with only the clothes on their backs, no one is getting fed. Michael said her order, which has been in Haiti since 1983 and is now in hiding, is now contemplating leaving, Michael said.
“We thank the Lord that we have the gift of life because they could have shot us. Our fear is, we don’t know what the future is for all of these children,” said Michael. The order’s convent is in the same complex as the Pravi factory and was also looted.
“We worry about the poor who are depending on us,” she said.
The World Food Program has said it had to put its school feeding program on hold because nearly 2,100 metric tons of food, valued at $5 million, was looted from two of the agency’s warehouses. The food collectively would have fed 200,000 school children and vulnerable adults until the end of the year.
“For me it’s just very hard to justify looting food that is intended for very vulnerable populations,” Jean-Martin Bauer, the program’s country director, told the Miami Herald. “This looting has affected many, many institutions in the country.”
After 1,400 metric tons of food for 100,000 schoolchildren was stolen from the program’s warehouse in Gonaïves, a second warehouse in the city of Les Cayes, storing 700 metric tons of pre-positioned food for hurricanes or earthquakes, was also pillaged.
“People forced their way in and looted the warehouse,” Bauer said.
‘The people are living in misery. They need food.’
The attacks on food depots and charities are taking place throughout the country. In Jeremie in the Grand’Anse region, the French humanitarian non-profit ACTED was looted. In Port-de-Paix, another Caritas warehouse, which receives food donations from the Coconut Creek based charity Food for the Poor, was also looted.
“They pillaged, they vandalized, they destroyed,” said Father Pheschner Julmisse, a Catholic priest who serves as director for Caritas in the northwest city. “They left with everything Caritas had.”
Julmisse wasn’t at the facility when the crowd came, but he was told they were armed with guns, machetes and sticks to break the doors down.
Julmisse doesn’t fully blame the population.
“The people are living in misery. They need food. Life has become expensive,” he said. “There is no fuel and all of their basic food needs have skyrocketed in price. And they don’t have jobs. They are rebelling to see how this government will address their needs so that their lives can change.”
The latest rounds of protests were ignited by a Sept. 11 announcement by interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry that the government was raising the price of fuel to reduce $400 million in subsidies it can no longer afford. But the anger had been at a boil for weeks.
It started to flare up soon after Henry, under pressure by the international community to clean up customs enforcement, replaced the head of Haitian customs amid a corruption investigation into allegations that he was implicated in the illegal trafficking of arms and had had his U.S. visa revoked.
The naming of a new customs director in July coincided with a crackdown at the seaports to collect an estimated $600 million in undeclared duties, mostly from wealthy, powerful businessmen, and to stop the trafficking of illegal arms and ammunition.
The government told the U.N. Security Council last month that the reform efforts led to a 40% increase in customs revenue in August. But progress has come at a steep price. Foreign diplomats say the violent protests have been fueled by entrenched economic interests who are angry about the reductions in fuel subsidies and the customs crackdown. Human rights activists have criticized the fuel increase, saying it undermines the suffering of the Haitian people, who are now being asked to pay as much as 128% more for gas and 91% more for diesel.
“There is no life here at all,” said Riveaux Mondesir, 63, whose Gonaïves home is located off a well-traveled road where bicycles have now replaced automobiles. “Life is extremely difficulty. Everything is expensive.
“The state doesn’t really help the people and this government has not done anything for the population. We all are suffering; those who are in gangs, and those of us who are not.”
A father of five whose children range in age between 21 and 35, Mondesir works in agriculture. He recalls the days the rice-growing Artibonite Valley fed Haiti. But drought, natural disaster, bad governance and now rising costs have made those days a distant memory.
“We used to produce enough rice to export abroad,” he said. “Now, everything has been destroyed…. All of Haiti is destroyed.”
Like others in the rural community, Mondesir followed news about the lootings. He said he can’t blame people like Weber for closing shop even it if it means scores of Haitians will go hungry.
Weber, who is Catholic, said his factory was more of an economic mission than a profit venture. He had a general manager but ran it with the help of nuns in hopes of transforming an area with no running water, no electricity and no jobs into an economic hub.
“That whole area of Praville was slowly but steadily coming out of unemployment. I was talking to other Fortune 500 companies about putting factories on that land,” he said.
Workers made polo shirts for Subway stores and school uniforms, and the weekly payroll was about $8,000. Weber also assisted the nuns with their feeding program.
“I’m not going to lay this on the people,” Weber said. “It was gone. They said, ‘Hey, do you want staff to feed your family? Do you want stuff to eat? Go get it. You can make money off this stuff.’ ”
Still, he believes he was targeted, like other Catholic-affiliated charities, parochial schools and religious orders that came under attack in Gonaïves and Port-de-Paix. Now the biggest losers are his 104 employees and those benefiting from having a reliable income, he said.
“Every Friday was payday and every Friday the guy who sells rice sold more rice; the lady that sells mangoes sold more mangoes… the guy who sold kids’ shoes sold more kids’ shoes,” Weber said. “I could stand on top of my factory and I could literally see the houses that didn’t have roofs were getting more roofs at a crazy pace. I couldn’t believe what $8,000 a week did within a two-, three mile radius of my factory.”
That multiplier effect is now over—at least for him.
“The overarching purpose of my life is to make a difference with love and joy,” Weber said. “I can’t make a difference in Haiti, let alone with love and joy. So I’m out.”
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