An alarming number of women and children are being kidnapped and used as “bargaining chips” in Haiti, according to the United Nations.
Data shows almost 300 women and children were kidnapped in the first six months of this year – more than the total for 2022 and three times more than in 2021.
Including men, the UN said it has verified 1,014 kidnappings in 2023, mostly for ransom payments though also for recruitment into criminal gangs.
“The stories we are hearing are shocking and unacceptable,” said Gary Conille, Unicef Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Women and children are not commodities. They are not bargaining chips.”
Kidnappers also stand accused of raping and sexually abusing girls to pressure families into paying a ransom, according to the UN Human Rights Office.
“We heard one story of an 11-year-old girl who said she was raped by three men during her kidnapping,” Ricardo Pires, who works at Unicef, told The Telegraph.
According to CARDH, a Haitian human rights group, most kidnappings last 15 days and victims’ families are asked for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of US dollars. “Often after the first payment, the victims are not released and pay a second and a third ransom,” a spokesperson said.
Haiti has faced crippling violence since its president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home two years ago. Elections have not been held since, and the Caribbean nation of 11 million people has no remaining elected officials.
According to the World Bank, nearly 60 per cent of the population now lives below the poverty line, with limited access to basic services. Almost 200 gangs have capitalised on the dire economic situation and scant job prospects by welcoming hundreds of youths into their ranks.
Instead of a working capital city, Port-au-Prince is now disrupted by daily blockades, looting and a widespread terror campaign as the gangs battle to expand their territory.
Criminal organisations dismember bodies, behead rivals and kill minors accused of being informants.
Doctors Without Borders last month announced that it was suspending services in one of its hospitals because some 20 armed men burst into an operating room and abducted a patient.
“There is such contempt for human life among the conflicting parties, and such violence in Port-au-Prince, that even the vulnerable, sick and wounded are not spared,” Mahaman Bachard Iro, the organisation’s head of programmes in Haiti, wrote in a statement.
With each official update, it seems that violence has continued to snowball. In the first three months of 2023, more than 1,630 people were killed, wounded or kidnapped in Haiti, a 30 per cent increase compared to the previous quarter, according to the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti.
More than 165,000 Haitians have also fled their homes, the International Organization for Migration said.
Since April, a brutal vigilante campaign to reclaim the streets of the capital from gangs – known as “bwa kale” – has taken hold. On April 24, 14 presumed gang members were beaten, doused in gasoline and set on fire.
Yet any efforts to mount an international intervention have stalled, largely because no country is prepared to lead it.
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