Foreigners trapped in violence-torn Haiti wait desperately for a way out

Estimated read time 5 min read

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Dozens of foreigners, including many from the United States and Canada, are stranded in Haiti, desperately trying to leave the violence-torn country where anti-government gangs are battling police and have already shut down both of the country’s international airports.

They were in Haiti for reasons ranging from adoptions to missionary and humanitarian work. Now, they are locked down in hotels and homes, unable to leave by air, sea or land as Haiti remains paralyzed by the mayhem and the gangs’ demands that Prime Minister Ariel Henry resign.

“We are seriously trapped,” said Richard Phillips, a 65-year-old from the Canadian capital, Ottawa, who has traveled to Haiti more than three dozen times to work on projects for the United Nations, USAID and now, a Haitian nonprofit called Papyrus.

After arriving in Haiti in late February, Phillips flew to the southern coastal city of Les Cayes to teach farmers and others how to operate and repair tractors, cultivators, planters and other machinery in an area known for its corn, rice, peas and beans.

Once his work was done, Phillips flew to the capital, Port-au-Prince, only to find that his flight had been canceled. He stayed at a nearby hotel, but the gunfire was relentless, so moved on to a safer area.

“We are actually quite concerned about where this is going,” he told The Associated Press by phone. “If the police force collapses, there’s going to be anarchy in the streets, and we might be here a month or more.”

Scores of people have been killed in the gang attacks that began Feb. 29, and more than 15,000 people have been left homeless by the violence.

Earlier this week, Haiti’s government extended a state of emergency and nightly curfew to try and quell the violence, but the attacks continue.

Gangs have burned police stations, released more than 4,000 inmates from Haiti’s two biggest prisons and attacked Port-au-Prince’s main airport, which remains closed. As a result, the prime minister has been unable to return home after a trip to Kenya to push for the U.N.-backed deployment of a police force from the East African country.

Phillips said he has exhausted all options to leave Haiti by air, noting that a helicopter operator couldn’t get insured for such a flight and a private plane pilot said that approach would be too risky. As for trying to trek to the neighboring Dominican Republic: “It’s possible we could walk miles and miles to get to a border, but I’m sure that’s dangerous as well.”

Despite being stuck, Phillips said he remains calm.

“I’ve been shot at many times in Haiti and have bullet holes in my truck,” he said. “Personally, I’m kind of used to it. But I’m sure other people, it’s quite traumatic for them.”

Yvonne Trimble, who has lived in Haiti for more than 40 years, is among the U.S. expats who can’t leave.

She and her husband are in the northern coastal city of Cap-Haitien, waiting for a private evacuation flight for missionaries that had already been canceled once.

“We’re completely locked down,” she said by phone. “This is the worst I’ve seen it. It’s total anarchy.”

Trimble noted how a mob surrounded the airport in Cap-Haitien recently and began throwing rocks and bottles following a rumor that the prime minister was going to land.

She and her husband are scheduled to fly out next week courtesy of Florida-based Missionary Flights International.

The company’s vice president of administration, Roger Sands, said Missionary Flights International has received up to 40 calls from people hoping to leave or remain on standby.

“We’re getting phone calls constantly,” he said. “The big concern is that every time people see an airplane, they think the prime minister is coming back to the country, and there’s a large segment of the society that doesn’t want that to happen. So we don’t want to be the first ones in.”

It’s not clear when Haiti’s two international airports will reopen.

“This is difficult for us,” Sands said. “We hate seeing our planes on the ground when there’s need.”

A missionary couple who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their safety said they have been living in Haiti for several years but won’t leave because they’re in the middle of adopting a 6-year-old boy.

“There is no choice to be made. We’re here as family,” the woman said.

Meanwhile, her husband was supposed to fly to the U.S. last week for medical care since he has Type 1 diabetes and has developed a neuropathy that causes severe pain in his legs and back, and muscle-wasting in his legs, making it difficult to move.

For now, the four appointments he made are on hold.

“It’s a little frustrating,” he said.

Also unable to leave are Matt Prichard, a 35-year-old from Lebanon, Ohio, and his family. Prichard, COO of a missionary, has two children — an infant and toddler — with his Haitian wife, as well as an 18-year-old son.

The rest of his family hasn’t been able to get documents to enter the U.S. yet, so they will all stay in southern Haiti for now.

“We unfortunately seem to be stuck,” he said.

Prichard noted that his son is stressed out by the situation, telling him he should leave because ‘this isn’t a good place for you. Just get out of here.’

But Prichard said, “As a father, you can’t leave your kids or your family.”

He said the local grocery store has nearly run out of basic goods and gas has been hard to find.

“The expat community here is really our solace,” he said. “It’s that connection, those relationships, that really are getting us through.”