The French medical charity Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiere is temporarily closing one of its health facilities in Haiti after doctors and patients were the target of an armed gang attack over the weekend.
Gang members fired several bursts in the direction of the emergency center in the Martissant neighborhood on the southern outskirts of metropolitan Port-au-Prince on Saturday, the charity group said.
“They clearly targeted the facility from outside,” said MSF Head of Mission Alessandra Giudiceandrea.
No one died or was injured. But the humanitarian medical organization, which is used to working in conflict zones around the globe and has been operating in Haiti for 30 years, said it believes “that it can no longer continue treating the population without endangering its staff.”
After Saturday’s attack, Giudiceandrea evacuated staff and patients from the emergency center. She took the decision to immediately suspend activities for a week and said she’s hoping that they find the facility intact when they reopen. The Martissant Emergency Center, which opened in 2006, is the oldest MSF project in the country and the only facility in the area providing free medical care to Haitians.
“The safety of the teams has been severely tested for weeks,” Giudiceandrea said.
In May, the charity lost a local employee when he was shot on his way home from work at its trauma hospital in the Tabarre suburb even though he did not resist his attackers. The father of three was rushed back to the hospital, where he died on arrival. In early June, armed individuals robbed two MSF ambulance drivers and other vehicles coming from Martissant.
“The humanitarian space has really been shrinking in the last months,” said Giudiceandrea, noting that the decision to temporarily close is a stark reminder that going to work in Haiti is dangerous. “The services that MSF provides are at stake today. But for our staff and for everybody, going to work is extremely dangerous.”
Haiti has been seeing an unprecedented surge in deadly gang violence in recent weeks, with warring factions fighting over territory, control and money. An estimated 13,600 people have fled their homes in Port-au-Prince since June 1 to escape clashes between rival gangs, the United Nations said.
The surge is part of the country’s deepening political and economic crisis, MSF said, that is affecting all aspects of Haitian life. The health system, already stressed by growing medical needs and a lack of funding, is now further strained by insecurity and an increase in surging COVID-19 infections. The country remains the only nation in Latin America and the Caribbean where the government has yet to administer a COVID-19 vaccine.
In addition to temporarily closing the Martissant site, which leaves people in the area without access to medical care, Giudiceandrea said MSF has put on hold plans to reopen its COVID-19 treatment center. It closed a center last year because hospitalizations were low.
“At a time when we should expand our activities because of COVID-19 and other needs, we are fighting to keep our structures open despite deplorable security conditions,” she said. “We would like to do more, but we can’t do more. When you open a facility and start medical activities, you have to think about security, and the options left are very few.”
MSF had been looking to reopen a new COVID-19 treatment center near Martissant for several weeks now, but has now put it on hold, Giudiceandrea said, because of the armed conflicts. The closest facilities to treat the deadly virus are miles away at a government-run site in Delmas 2 and at the nonprofit St. Luke Hospital in Tabarre. Recently, doctors at Delmas 2 warned that the surge in gang violence in the area was preventing patients from going, and St. Luke, already struggling with oxygen demands, said it may need to close due to an ongoing fuel shortage.
The capital is again suffering from a fuel crisis, this time provoked by the gang conflict.
Over the weekend, gang battles in the Cité Soleil slum, near the northern entrance of the capital, forced scores of people to flee their homes.
The same day MSF was coming under attack from one gang, another gang, along the eastern edge of the capital, was wrecking havoc and setting fire to more than 10 vehicles in front of a church in Croix-des-Bouquets. The perpetrators were said to be members of a gang known as 400 Mawozo, and the incident was captured on video.