Haiti’s main airport reopens nearly 3 months after gang violence forced it closed

AP , Tuesday 21 May 2024

Haiti’s main international airport reopened Monday for the first time in nearly three months after relentless gang violence forced authorities to close it.

Haiti main airport
Passengers wait to board a World Atlantic plane at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, May 20, 2024. Haiti s main international airport reopened Monday for the first time in nearly three months after gang violence forced authorities to close it in early March. AP

 

The reopening of the Toussaint-Louverture airport in the capital of Port-au-Prince is expected to help ease a critical shortage of medications and other basic supplies. The country’s main seaport remains paralyzed. Gangs control 80% of the capital.

US-based airlines are not expected to start using the airport until late May or early June.

The first commercial passenger flight since March left for Miami nearly two hours behind schedule, with sweating passengers complaining about the lack of air conditioning until takeoff.

Although the flight was organized by local carrier Sunrise Airways, it contracted Florida-based charter airline World Atlantic, which distributed paper towels to drenched passengers.

As the plane hurtled down the runway and took off, one passenger said in a soft voice, “Yes. Yes.”

Before Monday, the sole airport operating in Haiti was located in the north coastal city of Cap-Haitien. It was out of reach for many seeking to flee the country, with roads leading from Port-au-Prince controlled by gangs that have opened fire on cars and buses passing through.

The US government had evacuated hundreds of citizens by helicopter out of a hilly neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, as did nonprofit organizations, as gangs laid siege to parts of the capital.

The attacks began on Feb. 29, with gunmen seizing control of police stations, opening fire on the Port-au-Prince airport and storming Haiti’s two biggest prisons, freeing more than 4,000 inmates.

Gangs since then have directed their attacks on previously peaceful communities, leaving thousands homeless.

More than 2,500 people have been killed or injured in Haiti from January to March, a more than 50% increase compared to the same period last year, according to the United Nations.

At the Couronne Bar near the sole airport gate operating on Monday, 43-year-old manager Klav-Dja Raphael welcomed her first clients. But her smile belied her fear.

“We are scared because they can still attack us here,” she said. “We must come in. It’s our job, but we’re afraid.” She recalled how bullets ricocheted through the airport the day it was attacked.

While the airport provided workers at that bar a month’s wages, she was left unemployed for the rest of the time, relying on friends and family. She is anxious to join her 13-year-old son who lives in Florida with his father.

Other workers, including those at immigration, were all smiles, content to be finally back at work. “That was a long vacation!” one immigration agent said.

Dozens of people lined up hours before the flight.

“I’m very happy, but it hurts that I’m leaving my husband and my son,” said Darling Antoine as her eyes began to water.

She received a visa allowing her to live in the US, but the rest of her family is still waiting. They applied because gangs kept encroaching on their neighborhood. “There are heavy gunshots every day,” she said. “Sometimes we have to hide under the bed.”

Jean Doovenskey, a 31-year-old accountant, left unemployed by the violence, said he was notified in early April that he was authorized to live in the US He will live with his aunt in Florida but hopes to return to Haiti one day and live. “I believe in a new Haiti,” he said.

The attack on the airport also left former Prime Minister Ariel Henry locked out of Haiti since he was on an official trip to Kenya. He has since resigned, and a transitional presidential council is seeking a new prime minister. It is also tasked with selecting a new Cabinet and organizing general elections.

In recent weeks, US military planes have landed at the Port-au-Prince airport with supplies as well as civilian contractors to help Haiti prepare for the arrival of foreign forces expected to help quell the gang violence.

On Sunday, Kenya’s foreign affairs principal secretary, Korir Sing’oei, said a plan to deploy police officers from the East African country was in final stages.

“I can tell you for sure that deployment will happen in the next few days, few weeks,” he said.

In March, Kenya and Haiti signed agreements to try to salvage a plan for the country to deploy 1,000 police officers to the troubled Caribbean nation.

Other countries expected to back up Kenyan forces include the Bahamas, Barbados, Benin, Chad and Bangladesh. It wasn’t immediately clear when those would arrive.

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