PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Bullets began to pierce the hospital windows as women carrying small children ran from room to room looking for a safe place to hide as the heavily armed gang approached.
The louder the shots, the more the women screamed until a hospital employee begged them to stay quiet and ordered them to lie down on the ground. Mothers with babies and shaking hands stuffed a breast into their tiny mouths to keep them calm, wondering if they would survive Wednesday’s attack on the Fontaine Hospital Center and the surrounding community in the Haitia poor neighborhood of Cité Soleil.
A couple of hours passed. The shooting never stopped. Suddenly an employee appeared, told them to get up and go to the front yard without making a noise. The police were waiting with armored vehicles.
“Get in! Get in! Get in! Get in quick!” Employees shouted as women carrying children and babies boarded private buses and ambulances that officers would escort out of Cité Soleil, a rare triumph for a police department that It is understaffed and resourced and outnumbered by gangs.Employees also joined dozens of evacuees, carrying plastic containers that cradle newborns with oxygen.
It was the latest gang attack on a vulnerable and impoverished community in the capital of Port-au-Prince, a show of defiant force and violence that continues to overwhelm a crumbling government that requested the immediate deployment of an international armed force more than a year ago. It’s been done and it hasn’t arrived yet.
“A big disappointment is that the state has disappeared,” José Ulysse, director and founder of the hospital, said of the government’s inability to combat gangs while thanking police for saving people’s lives on Wednesday.
He said he hopes to be able to reopen the hospital soon as many wonder why it was attacked amid speculation it could have been gangs flexing their muscles during an ongoing turf war, indicating no one is safe.
The assault that forced the evacuation of the hospital and left dozens of homes on fire was attributed to the Brooklyn gang. It is led by Gabriel Jean-Pierre, nicknamed “Ti Gabriel,” leader of a powerful gang alliance known as G-Pep, one of two rival coalitions in Haiti.
Previous attacks in Cité Soleil and other areas have left hundreds of civilians dead as gangs loot communities, rape and kill people inside their homes. According to the UN, more than 1,230 murders and 701 kidnappings were reported across Haiti between July 1 and September 30, more than double the number reported during the same period last year.
Ulysse said gang clashes in Cité Soleil increased after the recent death of Iskar Andrice, a former mathematics and physics teacher who became a feared gang leader.
During recent clashes in the sprawling coastal slum that led to Wednesday’s attack, gangs could be seen traveling by boat to surprise and kill members of rival gangs, Ulysse said.
“The moment one boss dies, others will try to control the area,” he said. “It’s about controlling more territory and raising money.”
Residents fear that violence in Cité Soleil and elsewhere will only increase as gangs struggle to fill the void left by Andrice’s death.
Wednesday’s shooting began at dawn, recalled Edline Pierre, a 26-year-old mother of three. She was at the Fontaine Hospital Center with her two youngest children, who were being treated for diarrhea and malnutrition.
Late in the morning, the gunshots got closer and she snuck under a bed with her two children. As bullets began hitting the hospital roof and breaking windows, she heard people in the courtyard shout, “God, come get me!”
Many were shocked and scared, he recalled.
Then, after everyone inside the hospital quieted down, he heard gangs outside discussing whether or not to burn the facility down.
“If it weren’t for God, (Wednesday) could have been my last day on earth,” he said, recalling that police were still shooting at gang members hiding in the bushes as they left in ambulances and buses.
Pierre, along with many of those who were at the hospital that day, is staying for now in a private home in a safer community. She doesn’t know if her eldest son or her mother, who cared for her, are alive. Her house was burned during the attack.
Marie-Marthe Pierre, mother of four children, has the same fear. She was in the hospital with her 7-month-old baby and now she cannot communicate with the relatives who were caring for her other children.
The bullets went through the windows and hit the walls of the room where he was hiding.
“We were there, stuck, vulnerable,” he said. “If the police hadn’t shown up, I don’t know what would have happened to us.”
A spokesperson for the Haitian National Police did not return messages seeking comment.
Those interviewed praised the police and Ulysse, who called for help through social media when the facility was attacked.
Yolande Saint-Philippe, who was at the hospital with her 14-year-old daughter’s 2-year-old child from a gang rape, called Ulysse “a good man.”
“He could have abandoned us, but he managed to move us to a safe house where the child is still being fed, I am still being fed,” she said, explaining that they are both malnourished. “Luckily for us, God sent us a savior.”
Everyone was safely evacuated from the hospital except one person: a baby born during the attack who died during a breech delivery because the gunshots prevented medical staff from helping the mother.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.