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Displaced Haitians Defend Against Escaped Prisoners

Thousands of escaped inmates continue to roam the Port-au-Prince area of Haiti after the prison holding them collapsed in the January 12th earthquake. Some Haitians are taking it upon themselves to defend their shattered neighborhoods.

“The city looks more like a war zone than a disaster area in some ways,” says reporter Simon Roughneen, who has traveled around the damaged Haitian capital.

Five or six story buildings, he says, have been “reduced to a pile less than the height of a man.” As for the once large cathedral in the city, Roughneen says, “It looks like it’s been bombed from above.”

Looters or just trying to survive?

“On the streets around the downtown area there have been reports of some significant looting and violence over the past few days. I’ve seen some charred bodies left on the streets,” he says, “and it looks like these were people who were possibly involved in looting but were killed and burned and left in the open as a warning by vigilante groups.”

Some have criticized the use of the term “looters,” saying it is a derogatory term being used for people just trying to survive in a desperate situation.

Roughneen says he’s talked to many displaced Haitians about the issue and asked them whether “looting” was the correct term.

“They said that the looting is more or less down to the 4,000 or so prisoners, who escaped when the city’s jail here in Port-au-Prince was destroyed during the earthquake. But then again, that might not be an absolute or full picture either.”

Many of the people he met are living on the streets of their destroyed neighborhoods or on any available open land. “Five hundred, a thousand, two thousand people sleeping in the one place,’ he says.

While they need emergency aid and shelter, they also told the reporter they need security.

“The escaped prisoners from the collapsed jail are at large in the city. They’ve been going around terrorizing people, marauding, looking for supplies. Looking to take what they can. And some of the men in these areas…say they’re forming vigilante groups to protect themselves and the women and children, who are sleeping in the open and are vulnerable,” Roughneen says.

What about U.N. and U.S. troops?

“They’re providing security,” he says, “but it’s very, very difficult to cover the whole city and the whole affected area. You’re talking about hundreds of little side streets, broken down areas. There are streets that are blocked by fallen rubble.”

Roughneen says there are 7,000 U.N. soldiers in Haiti and more are on the way. The U.S. is sending more troops to help with both humanitarian efforts and security.

“For sure it is needed. And where there are more and more aid supplies going out to some of the big open-air camps, the aid workers I think, anyone that I’ve spoken to, want and need a significant security presence…because they are going to get mobbed by thousands of people desperate, looking for food, looking for shelter, looking for water, looking for whatever they can get,” he says.