PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Gang members have raided a key community in Haiti’s capital that is home to numerous police officers and has been under siege for four days in an ongoing attack, with residents fearful of the violence spreading throughout Port-au-Prince.
The pop of automatic weapons echoed throughout Solino on Thursday as thick columns of black smoke rose above the once peaceful neighborhood where frantic residents kept calling radio stations asking for help.
“If police don’t come, we are dying today!” said one unidentified caller.
Lita Saintil, a 52-year-old street vendor, told The Associated Press that she fled Solino on Thursday with her teenage nephew after being trapped in her house for hours by incessant gunfire.
The homes around hers were torched by gangs, and she recalled seeing at least six bodies as she fled.
“It’s very scary now,” she said. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
Another resident, Nenel Volme, told the AP that he was chatting with a friend near his house on Sunday when gunfire erupted and a bullet struck a bone in his right hand.
“I don’t have the means to go to the hospital,” he said as he lifted his injured hand, which was wrapped in gauze.
It wasn’t immediately clear who organized and was participating in the attack on Solino. The community , which is home to thousands of people, was once infested by gangs before a U.N. peacekeeping mission drove them out in the mid-2000s.
The attack could mark a turning point for gangs, which are now estimated to control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince and have been suspected of killing nearly 4,000 people and kidnapping another 3,000 last year, overwhelming police in the country of nearly 12 million people.
If Solino falls, gangs would have easy access to neighborhoods such as Canape Vert that have so far remained peaceful and largely safe.
“Life in Port-au-Prince has become extremely crazy,” Saintil said. “I never thought Port-au-Prince would turn out the way it is now.”
On Thursday evening, Haiti’s National Police released a statement saying officers were deployed to Solino “with the aim of tracking down and arresting armed individuals seeking to sow panic among the civilian population.” Police also released a nearly three-minute video showing in part officers on a rooftop in Solino exchanging fire with unidentified gunmen who did not appear on screen.
Nearby communities spooked by the ongoing violence in Solino began erecting barricades on Thursday using rocks, trucks, tires and even banana trees to prevent gangs from entering.
One man near a barricade in Canape Vert said that he had been following the protests organized earlier this week by supporters of former rebel leader Guy Philippe, who has pledged a revolution to drive out gangs.
“It’s more misery,” the man, who declined to identify himself, said of Haiti’s ongoing crisis. “We are suffering. The country is gangsterized.”
Amid concerns that the violence in Solino could spill over into other neighborhoods, parents rushed to schools across Port-au-Prince to pick up their children.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to make it back home,” said one mother who declined to provide her name out of fear. “There is no public transportation, and tires are burning everywhere. We don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Haiti is awaiting the deployment of a foreign armed force led by Kenya to help quell gang violence that was approved by the U.N. Security Council in October.
A judge in Kenya is expected to issue a ruling on Jan 26 regarding an order currently blocking the deployment.