‘On the Streets, We Are Prey’

Power outages. Kidnappings. A presidential assassination. A Global Press Journal reporter grapples with the country her beloved Haiti has become.

Personal Essay

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‘On the Streets, We Are Prey’

Illustration by Matt Haney, GPJ

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — On the morning I was kidnapped, I was heading home from a credit union. It was 10:45 a.m. on a sun-kissed winter day, and I had just withdrawn money for my oldest son’s university tuition. My motorcycle cab zipped down bustling Route Nationale No. 2. Suddenly, eight men stopped us.

They raised their guns. “Come with us,” they said. None of them had bothered to cover their faces — the mark of men with no fear of getting caught. We abandoned the motorcycle and followed them wordlessly. All around us, people walked by as if nothing were wrong. I thought it was the last moment of my life. I prayed to God, don’t let me die. For my children, don’t let me die.

I am 47 years old, a married mother of two boys and guardian to a third. The Haiti of my childhood felt free. We dealt with violence and crime, but we still lived our lives outdoors, under the island sun. I remember long days at the beach, troubadours strumming guitars, exquisite whiffs of salt and sand. I remember hiking, eating pork griot at restaurants, dancing the traditional compas. Crowds milling in public squares. Laughter.

But in recent years, political and social turmoil eviscerated our sense of security and locked us inside. The 2010 earthquake. The 2017 election of President Jovenel Moïse. The dissolution of Parliament. Moïse’s rule by decree. His assassination in July. Another devastating earthquake in August.

Our institutions hobbled, gangs rose to power. More than 100 control about 60% of the country, according to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, a civil society organization in Port-au-Prince. Kidnappings help fund the gangs. Dozens of abductions are reported each month; in September, there were more than 100.

Everyone is a potential target: doctors, lawyers, students, street vendors. Even police officers. Gangs demand as much as $1 million per person, as one reportedly did for the 17 missionaries from a United States-based aid group who were kidnapped in October. Hostages are routinely beaten and raped, sometimes even killed.

In nearly every conceivable way, the tumult shapes our days. At home, we are deprived of services the government once provided. On the streets, we are prey.

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Anne Myriam Bolivar, GPJ Haiti

Global Press Journal reporter Anne Myriam Bolivar hired a private carrier to deliver water to her home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Though she pays for water every month, her faucets are often dry.

Haitians have long suffered from unreliable services. For instance, my family pays for water every month, but our faucets are usually dry. I hired a private carrier to deliver water to my home; he arrives daily with a wheelbarrow of yellow buckets. If he didn’t show, I’d worry: Had he been kidnapped?

Power outages once lasted days; now it’s weeks, even months. Our fridge is more a decoration than an appliance. My boys — ages 11, 15 and 18 — have few distractions; no electricity means no TV. We use rechargeable bulbs in the evening so they can study; otherwise, we light candles.

At night, I leave a radio on by my bed, so when the power flickers on, music blares and wakes me up. Doesn’t matter if it’s 1 a.m. — I am thrilled. I finish my work, charge my computer and phone, feel normal for a few hours.

I’ve been a journalist for years: first as an editor at a local radio station, then as a reporter for Global Press Journal. It’s my duty to always be present in my community. That’s harder now. Before I leave home, I listen to morning news programs that tell us the state of the streets: if there’s a protest, if there are burning tires, if a road is barricaded, if it’s overrun with bandits.

I used to meet sources by myself. I can’t anymore. I have a trusted driver; sometimes my cousin accompanies me to interviews. Even shopping is risky — my husband and I go together. My boys no longer leave the house alone; they don’t talk to strangers. When they hear gunfire in the distance, they’re reminded why.

Tens of thousands of Haitians have fled the country. In January, my mother told me, “You should leave, too — by staying, you’re putting your life, your children’s lives, in the hands of bandits.”

“Where would I go?” I replied. I have built everything here — my family, my job, my life. I will not start again in another country.

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Anne Myriam Bolivar, GPJ Haiti

Power outages are common in Haiti. Anne Myriam Bolivar sometimes walks a half-hour to charge her phone and laptop at a business that derives electricity from solar panels.

The kidnappers told my driver and me that we were walking to “the base,” a house where the gang keeps hostages. They snatched my bag with my money and various documents, including my ID and my oldest son’s passport. They hit us, pointed guns at our temples. Death felt near.

We never made it to the base. About 20 minutes in, the bandits said they heard a siren. “Beware, beware, police!” they yelled and ran off, leaving my driver and me on the side of the road. It was a miracle — I didn’t hear any sirens.

I reported my kidnapping to police, mostly to create a paper trail so my son could get a new passport. I never heard from them again about my case. The police are considered ineffective against the gang onslaught. Pierre Esperance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, told me in 2020 that corruption and a lack of resources were to blame. (A police spokesperson didn’t respond to my request for comment.)

After the abduction, my head ached from the kidnappers’ blows. I had trouble breathing. My blood pressure shot up. I felt nervous all the time. I struggled to talk to my family. Sleep was no escape. I had terrible dreams: bandits cornering me, threatening me with guns.

I started seeing a counselor who lives in another country. During our sessions, she told me, “Go out, go to the movies, do things that can help you relax.” What people don’t know about Haiti is that these things no longer exist.

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Anne Myriam Bolivar, GPJ Haiti

Anne Myriam Bolivar’s backyard in Port-au-Prince offers a respite from the violence that has engulfed Haiti in recent years.

As I start to write this, it’s summer; the air is hot and sticky. In years past, this was the season of patronal feasts, festivals dedicated to various Catholic saints. They are religious celebrations but also community celebrations, a moment of reunion with friends. Since I was a little girl, I’ve attended the feast in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus, at Our Lady of the Assumption cathedral in the city of Les Cayes. Not this year.

The gangs grow in power. One Monday, I woke up early to meet a source, but not far from my house, bandits had overtaken the road. They searched people, snatched their phones and money, and fired bullets into the air. I rushed home to safety. That was before the presidential assassination, before the 7.2-magnitude earthquake. After the quake, a gang leader announced a ceasefire — no kidnappings, no violence — but it ended within weeks.

One glimmer of hope: Personally, I’m doing better. My counselor taught me breathing exercises to calm my nerves and encouraged me to share my feelings with my family. That helped. When I share my joy, or even my anguish, I reclaim part of myself. I also have a respite: my backyard. It’s a small space with a table shaded by a red umbrella, two chairs and some greenery. I work there. I read there. It’s walled off from the street. Behind concrete and concertina wire, I feel safe.

Anne Myriam Bolivar is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.


Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.