Haiti is a profoundly impoverished country teetering on the brink of anarchy. Violence and chaos were woven into the fabric of life here long before the bloody revolution that finally birthed this nation in 1804, but today they have spread anew and intensified to unthinkable levels.
In the first six months of 2022, the United Nations documented 934 killings, 684 serious injuries and 680 kidnappings in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Gangs have taken over poor neighborhoods and blocked the roads that connect the city with the rest of the country. By July, the scale of insane violence was dominating all facets of life. According to the U.N., 234 people were killed or injured in the Port-au-Prince slum of Cité Soleil during one four-day stretch in July alone.
Cité Soleil means “City of the Sun.” But even under the stunningly bright Caribbean sun, Cité Soleil is a dark and dangerous place, a district so wretched few outsiders dare enter it. More than a quarter million people are crammed into its three square miles, making it the sprawling capital’s largest slum.
People here live in porous, rusting tin shacks, most without electricity. On rainy nights, the poor sleep in the mud. Open sewers and the stench of rotting garbage intensify the ugly reality. Children run around naked or in tattered clothes. Many have never been to school. Some are forced to stay awake all night and beat rats away with sticks. Pigs rummage through trash in search of food. Women and children squat in rancid, insect-infested rubbish to defecate and urinate. People eat “pies” made of mud and contaminated water. Many children have worms. Intestinal worms may consume as much as 20 percent of an infected child’s daily nutritional intake.
Half the children in Cité Soleil will die before age 5. Parents are sometimes forced to give up their children to servitude because they cannot afford to feed them.
The area is riddled with violence. More than 30 armed gangs roam these streets, each controlling a few blocks apiece. Murder, rape, kidnapping, looting and shootings are common. Stray bullets often hit children. Police presence is minimal. Reformers are routinely assassinated. People are beheaded or burned alive for opposing the local gang leader.
It is in this environment of relentless, barbaric violence that I operate a home for 50 abandoned children. The Santa Chiara Children’s Center is in a very poor area not far from Cité Soleil. Many of my kids were born in that dreadful slum. When I drive out of the gates of Santa Chiara, I realize I might not come back. Anything can happen in Haiti . . . almost none of it good.
Once a month I return to Florida for a week of stillness, silence, hot water, air conditioning and begging, and I am escorted to the airport by an armed policeman wearing a bulletproof vest. His job is to prevent me from being kidnapped — or worse. I would rather live close to a Starbucks, yet I have chosen instead the periphery of a slum. Instead of sipping a double latte to start my day, I encounter rats, maggots and battalions of insects. I am simply doing what I believe Christ wants me to do. There are many days when I do not do a good job of it.
As I try to be a voice for the voiceless Haitians with whom I live — and whom I love — I often say my orphanage is a home of hope and healing. Surrounding us every day are grace and violence. Blessing and bloodshed intermingle as the joy of the crib of Christ and the pain of the cross of Christ are both present. But things are getting worse. A few years ago, I would not hesitate to drive by myself into Cité Soleil to deliver water to a pregnant woman or rescue a sick child. That is no longer possible.
I first visited Haiti as a filmmaker in January 2010, days after a disastrous earthquake. I returned four times to document the painfully slow recovery. One year later, countless people were still living in threadbare tents, and I had spent a good deal of time in Cité Soleil while making Mud Pies & Kites. In my private journal from that period, I wrote: “The grinding poverty and desperate daily search for food have left people numb to the normal aspects of life. Few residents live past the age of 50; they die from disease, including AIDS, or violence. Death is in the air. Someone described it as ‘as close to hell as you can get.’”
Since the brutal, July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in his own bedroom, Haiti has slid into anarchy. Initially, there were sporadic protests, but it was the usual fare: tires burning at intersections to disrupt traffic, looting, smashed car windows, arson. All bad stuff that further reduced the quality of life. Yet Haitians had learned to live with such turmoil. I had, too.
In January 2022, however, the protests grew more violent. More businesses and even churches burned. The inept, corrupt government had no response. In the vacuum of power, gangs took control of the city. A wave of kidnappings claimed even priests and nuns and children. An Italian nun was shot to death in her car. Fear grew.
By July, gang violence had escalated to include decapitations and immolations. People were afraid to leave their homes. A pharmaceutical factory was set afire amid widespread looting. Shacks in Cité Soleil were burned to the ground, forcing thousands to flee for their lives. Many now live in public parks. Many Haitians tried to leave altogether; some died at sea when their overcrowded boats sank during desperate voyages to Florida or other Caribbean islands.
Meanwhile, some 52 women in Cité Soleil were victims of gang rape during a single week in July. The human rights organization that collected the testimonies of these women revealed that more than 20 were raped in front of their children, another one before her parents and two in front of their spouses. Six women witnessed their husbands’ executions before being raped and four were abused while pregnant. One victim was a 14-year-old girl.
The horror has not escaped Pope Francis’ attention. “I feel very close to Haiti,” he said, “not least because I am constantly updated on the situation by some priest friends of mine. I fear that it is falling into a pit of despair.” He called for concrete solutions to the crisis, challenging us to ask ourselves how we can help. Stressing that “the people of Haiti are a noble people,” he said we must help them grow in hope, and he encouraged us to do so through prayer and penance.
On August 20, a mother and her two daughters, both in their 20s, were driving to an Adventist church when gang members surrounded their car. They shot the women and set the car on fire, cremating their victims’ remains. Later that day, three people walking on the same street were shot to death. I know the street, as I have often driven to a store not far from where these six innocent people were slaughtered.
How we managed to create a haven of peace and kindness amid such barbarity is a miracle.
In September, Haiti’s acting president and acting prime minister, Ariel Henry, announced he was eliminating fuel subsidies to raise funds for government programs. Gasoline prices doubled, triggering a mass protest and strike. Angry mobs again blocked intersections throughout the city with burning tires. Commerce ground to a halt. Trucks could not deliver water for laundry and bathing. My car was pummeled with rocks thrown by protesters as I drove to the supermarket. The situation was so dangerous that the United States and other countries closed their embassies.
In early October, a federation of more than a dozen of Port-au-Prince’s most powerful gangs blocked Haiti’s largest oil terminal, which holds 70 percent of the country’s fuel supplies. Within weeks, the blockade forced schools and businesses to close. Banks opened three days a week for a few hours. Many hospitals closed because they had no fuel to operate generators. The price of everything skyrocketed. Supermarkets could no longer stock adequate supplies of imported food. People surrounded my home to beg for food. The scarcity of clean drinking water triggered a cholera outbreak that killed dozens of people by November; nearly 2,000 people were infected, most of them children. Mountains of garbage rose throughout the city, adding to the pollution. In my neighborhood, people burned their garbage; smoke from the fires drifted in our yard, making kids cough. Fear of being shot or kidnapped imprisoned most people inside their homes.
Meanwhile, we struggled to find fuel for the generator that augments our solar panels and recharges our batteries to get us through the night. We also used the generator to pump water to the roof so we have running water for bathing and flushing toilets. We paid $20 a gallon for diesel fuel and $25 for a gallon of gasoline on the black market, but that meant driving into dangerous neighborhoods to get it.
In late October, one of Haiti’s top investigative journalists was nearly killed when his car was riddled with bullets while he was driving to work. He was wounded but survived. In November, a former presidential candidate, along with his security guard, was murdered in his own car. Gangs even attempted to kidnap air traffic controllers who work at Toussaint Louverture International Airport.
By then the gangs were becoming more powerful than the government, even as the government used gangs to attack dissidents. His country in free fall, the widely disparaged Henry requested international military assistance to crush the gangs, a tactic that would likely strengthen his own power. Haiti’s elites love the idea. Most Haitians hate it. As the American journalist Amy Wilentz and the Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat have pointed out, each of the five foreign military incursions into Haiti over the last century have made things worse for the poor.
The Haitians I speak with, including the 44 employees at Santa Chiara, are downcast, depressed, frustrated and exhausted. We are all weary of the chaos and madness. I am near burnout from the stress of life in a virtual war zone.
My cherished and often fanciful ideas about God have been demolished in the hell of Haiti. I want to leave here and never return. But I cannot. I cannot abandon my kids. Many kids have been with me their entire lives; they know no other home than Santa Chiara. How we managed to create a haven of peace and kindness amid such barbarity is a miracle. I cry for Haiti. I cry for my kids, especially the older girls who will soon venture out. Nothing can prepare them for the reality beyond our walls. Their future is beyond bleak.
Two Haitian boys and four girls have my last name. Moïse Straub was born to a teenage mother on a dirt street in Cité Soleil. She handed the infant, still covered with birth fluid, to a stranger, telling the older woman she would be right back. The mother never returned. Too poor to feed the baby, the older woman brought the child to Santa Chiara. Four years earlier, another little boy’s mother had left him on a garbage heap the day after he was born. Someone brought him to Santa Chiara. He, too, was unnamed until I called him Peter Francis.
Bency Clare, now 13, timidly walked into my life on April 19, 2016, shortly before her 7th birthday. She was frightened and abused and tough as nails. She had experienced the worst that life could inflict on a child. Bency’s mom lived in Cité Soleil. She regularly drank whisky and smoked marijuana, probably to deaden the pain of her life. She beat Bency with an electrical cord and cut her with a razor blade. The girl had to poop in a plastic bag.
Bency was often left alone for days while her mother visited friends outside Port-au-Prince. She had only one blanket, and bugs bit her at night. With only scraps of bread and an occasional military field ration to eat, she’d learned to forage for discarded food in the garbage dumps that dot the dismal landscape. She could not read or write, yet her vocabulary contained words that would make most adults shudder.
When Bency arrived at Santa Chiara, she carried horrible memories. On those few occasions when her mother visited, Bency ran and hid. Her emotional scars took many years to heal. They will never disappear.
Bency’s story, sadly, is not unique. Statistics speak to the depth and devastation of Haitian poverty. Some 138,000 Haitian children die of preventable diseases each year. Eight percent die before their 5th birthday, most from treatable diseases. Especially young children are 15 times more likely to die from diarrhea and pneumonia than from AIDS. Meanwhile, one in four children is moderately to severely malnourished. Roughly 22 percent of all 5-year-olds exhibit stunted growth and brain development due to lack of adequate nutrition.
To make matters worse for Bency, she did not have legal papers. She was officially a nonperson, which made it impossible to register her for school.
On October 29, 2016, Bency’s life dramatically changed: I picked up a certificate signed by a judge stating she was my daughter. Her name became Bency Clare Straub. During those early days, she told me she loved having her own mattress and a clean blanket. She really loved having a toilet and a shower. The doll I’d given her that August was still in the box months later. She would take it out and play with it, then put it back to keep it safe. I vividly remember the day Bency said her first sentence in English: “Dad, I want a cookie.”
A cookie, a hug and lots of love — what else could an abused 7-year-old want? I taught Bency how to rinse her mouth with mouthwash after brushing her teeth. She smiled at the vibrant taste — an easily forgotten moment worth cherishing. At first, she clung to me. In time, she became more comfortable and ran around with the other kids. She began smiling more.
Because Bency was used to searching through garbage for scraps, she would hoard anything she didn’t eat. She feared hunger. I had to convince her we had plenty of food and that she should not take anything from the trash. It was a hard lesson to learn. One day, I had a reason to open the small suitcase she had brought with her. I was shocked to see hundreds of ants feasting on all the concealed food. I had to introduce her to the refrigerator and its importance.
I could fill a book with heartbreaking stories of the children who have come through Santa Chiara over the last eight years. At one time we had 72 kids living with us. Since the upsurge in violence, many of the employees’ kids spend time with us during the week. Two of our children have died. One died in our home; she was only 4 months old. That was a horrific day. The undertaker could not remove her body without permission from her mother. I had to place her lifeless body in a cooler and cover her in ice to slow her decomposition, as it would take days to find her mother in Cité Soleil. The girl’s name was Kenja. She was Bency’s half-sister.
The other child who died was not yet 3. She was removed from us by her deranged mother. The little girl was HIV-positive and required daily medication. The mother withheld these medicines, and her child died. Her name was Tamysha.
In Haiti, no false idols distract my gaze from the misery. There is no place to turn away. All I can see is the hiddenness of God.
I have found wisdom in the collective stories of these Haitian children as they teach me about the nature and unity of human life. In Haiti, I see the pain of the human condition, and it has shattered my false ideas and values into thousands of pieces. In Haiti, human misery is raw and real; I see things in their nakedness. The cross is around every corner. We either close our eyes to the cross, or we confront and embrace it. In Haiti, no false idols distract my gaze from the misery. There is no place to turn away. All I can see is the hiddenness of God.
Somehow, too, in Haiti I found the way to God through the misery and nothingness of my false self. I saw more clearly my true self and my complete dependence upon God. Eventually I felt God’s love more tangibly. Love is a mystical force that opens the door to forgiveness and mercy. The slums of Haiti stripped me bare of all pretensions. I stood amid the turbulence of overwhelming want, feeling the pain and not knowing how to respond.
In time, I saw how my eyes, my hands, my mouth were to become a means of expressing God’s love and mercy. With my mouth, I can utter kind words of support to someone who is depressed and give a smile to each sad face I encountered. With my arms, I can embrace an abandoned child. With my legs, I can walk among the suffering, and with my faith help them carry their crosses. To the person who has become hardened and hopeless, I can give my heart.
This new wave of barbarity perpetrated by gangs on innocent people struggling for survival is part of a very old story on this tormented island. Haiti’s colonial history is a sorrowful litany of catastrophe, of slaughter and assassinations, revolts and coups, despots and dictators, repression and cruelty that helps explain how the country came to be as it is today: a society badly broken and deeply wounded by corruption, constant political upheaval, unthinkable violence and rampant hunger, and therefore all the more vulnerable to natural disaster.
The Caribbean island of Hispaniola is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Through the end of the 18th century, Haiti belonged to France and what became the Dominican Republic belonged to Spain. The Spanish used violence to control the Taíno Indians when they first seized the land. When France occupied the island’s western third in the 1650s, the story turned to the brutality of plantation life and sugar production.
Haiti’s problem, at its core, is the tragic outcome of some of the most heinous racism the world has known. Within a century of Columbus’ arrival, Spanish colonists had all but killed off or assimilated the native population. The first enslaved Africans arrived on the island as early as 1501. Under the burden of backbreaking work and disease, they died by the thousands and were simply replaced by more, who would in turn be ground into submission and death.
Slave labor in Haiti produced enormous wealth for France, providing nearly one-third of its gross national product. Under the French, Haiti became the richest colony in the Americas, though 90 percent of its population was destitute and enslaved. Slave labor in Haiti produced 60 percent of all Europe’s coffee and 40 percent of its sugar. Most enslaved Africans did not live to see their 40th birthdays. By the 1780s, Haiti was importing 40,000 enslaved Africans a year. Because Africa could not meet France’s ferocious appetite for slaves, Africans were purchased or kidnapped from Jamaica and Louisiana.
The French used violence to control their enslaved laborers. Eventually, the slaves revolted. Fueled by anger pent up over years of abuse, they punished the French measure for measure, unleashing a tsunami of torture, dismemberment and slaughter. The oppressed became the oppressors. In 1804, Haiti became the second American nation to gain independence. A line of despots, military dictators, would-be reformers — and revolts against them — ensued. Meanwhile, France recognized Haiti’s independence in the 1820s, but only at the price of extortion: “indemnity” payments for assets lost in Haiti’s revolution that diminished the country’s economic development at a cost measured in billions of dollars today.
In 1915, after the barbaric assassination of the country’s sixth president in four years, the United States intervened. U.S. Marines landed in Port-au-Prince and would remain in country for 19 years. U.S. officials forced the rewriting of the Haitian constitution and insured that only Haitian politicians who supported U.S. economic interests rose to the presidency. Racism, torture and killings continued. Only in the 1940s did the U.S. cede back financial control of the country.
Soon François Duvalier, a medical doctor from Port-au-Prince, put an end to a century of Haiti’s domination by its mulatto elite, providing Haiti long-term stability at the cost of violent repression. Elected to the presidency in 1957, he turned Haiti into a police state that he ruled until his death in 1971. Duvalier used the office to fatten his own bank account while further impoverishing the nation, killing anyone who opposed him. His thugs often left the corpses of his enemies to rot on street corners. He had entire families killed by locking them inside while setting their homes on fire.
As he approached death, “Papa Doc” bequeathed the country to his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude Duvalier. Dubbed “Baby Doc,” he ruled in the same cruel and corrupt manner for another 15 years, until he was forced to flee the country aboard a U.S. cargo plane that also carried his BMW. During 29 years of rule, the Duvaliers fomented Haitian-on-Haitian violence. They amassed a fortune for themselves and left the nation deeply in debt. As Jean-Claude and his family flew to France, Haitians began to loot and destroy every building associated with his reign of terror and slaughtered Duvalier associates.
During the instability that ensued, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a populist Catholic priest and charismatic champion of the poor, was making a gradual transition from priest to president. Early in his priesthood, Aristide had aligned himself with the poor and rooted his ministry in liberation theology. Because of his outspoken defense of the poor and pro-democracy views, he became the target of many assassination attempts — and the ire of the Church hierarchy and the military. Objecting to his political activities, Aristide’s religious order expelled him in 1988; a few years into his presidency, he formally requested relief from his priestly duties.
As president, Aristide set out at once to reform Haitian society. He initiated a literacy program, dismantled Haiti’s notorious paramilitary police and oversaw remarkable reductions in human rights violations.
Sadly, Aristide was not immune to the negative temptations of power, and he, too, resorted to violence to push his agenda. His time in office was repeatedly interrupted by political unrest and two outright coups. Among his achievements, he built housing for the poor and started many public schools. He offered free health care for the poor. He built and opened the Peace Hospital, in which I’ve spent many hours over the last seven years.
Haiti’s wealthy elites opposed Aristide’s work on behalf of the poor. His election to a second proper term in 2000 was met with fierce opposition from rival political parties and the military. In 2003, he called upon France to pay $21 billion in restitution to Haiti for the extractive payments his country had continue to make until 1947. Then, in 2004, a second coup forced Aristide out for good. He spent years in exile in Africa, then returned to Haiti in 2011 and resumed his work on behalf of the poor.
In the spring of 2022, I met with Aristide in his home. During our conversation, I saw a passionate man who cared deeply about the poor. Among other things, we spoke about Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Dominican priest from Peru and Notre Dame professor emeritus considered the father of liberation theology. We also talked about the great Paul Farmer, who died in Africa on the morning we met. The conversation was electric. Aristide hugged me as we parted.
Everything about Haiti today screams scarcity. Scarcity of food, clean water and electricity, of jobs and pocket money, of education, health care and technology, of comfort and safety, of mercy and truth, of possibilities.
Saddest of all is the scarcity of hope and dreams. This scarcity existed before the 2010 earthquake, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed most of Port-au-Prince, leaving over a million more homeless. It only intensified after that awful day when everything crumbled down.
Haiti is a failed state. Its history leaves little room for optimism. Today it has no legitimate government and only a demoralized, underpaid police force. All social services have been terminated. The people, especially the poor, are on their own. They have no protection from violence. Normal diplomacy will not work in Haiti. Elections for now are impossible.
The wounds here are old and deep. Haitians desperately need hope and emotional, physical and spiritual healing. This is hard in a nation where violence rules and hope has all but vanished.
Yet somehow, I can see more clearly that the way of Christ, the way to God, is by way of the wound, the way of surrender and sacrifice. Christianity is not about correct theology or conformity to dogma. Christianity is about love. It is to love as Christ did, without regard for the faults of others — even of our enemies. Love unites what is fragmented and isolated. In unity, we value each gift of life, each beautiful cell that together forms the full body of Christ.
I do not find it easy to understand any of this while living in a war zone. I often want to hide or just get on a flight out and never come back. Yet I know how God gives us the grace to see that our lives must be put to the service of others — and of all creation. Through sharing and service, we will yet move toward union. In reaching out to others, we are reaching out to God.
God humbly and continuously bends down in love to embrace us in our weakness and vulnerability. In every moment, God the All Powerful willingly becomes powerless. He risks becoming a beggar of love, patiently waiting for us to respond.
Gerry Straub is the author of Reading Thomas Merton and Longing for God in Haiti. Learn about the Santa Chiara Children’s Center at santachiaracc.org.