Rifle shots echo through the rubble-strewn streets like firecrackers during Carnival. A cluster of hungry people scatter and run for their lives, clambering over mounds of collapsed walls and crushed cars. Around the corner, the desperate searchers regroup around a smashed-up storefront, and the pillaging of goods begins.
Such scenes of police shots and looting have played out daily in this earthquake-hammered capital, where millions of people struggle to eat and drink a week after the devastating tremor. The violence has become a pressing issue: it is being blamed for slowing the delivery of aid and is being used to urge for a more rapid deployment of U.S. troops.
Most of the looting is taking place in what used to be the main shopping district of Port-au-Prince. Tucked between the port and the central square (the location of the National Palace), it is a relatively small zone of some 20 blocks, extending from the sea high up into the surrounding hills. When the earth shifted on Jan. 12, the zone was one of the hardest hit in the city of some 2 million people. Streets there now look as if they were hammered by a blitz of bombers, with whole strips of buildings leveled.
Arriving at the zone, I and other journalists find two police officers relaxing in their squad car. More than half the force's officers have been killed, are missing or have fled since the quake, and the skeleton force that has returned to work cannot count on a police station for a base or a prison to house criminals in. The officers I meet casually say the looting is raging a block away. "The Haitian police are good, but we just do not have the numbers to deal with the problems in the city now," says officer Jean Marie Duran, wiping sweat from his brow in the 90-degree heat.
Climbing over piles of debris in the heart of the shopping district, we run into the looting. There are young men, teenagers, middle-aged women and gray old men, all searching frantically in the dilapidated shops and warehouses. Suddenly someone finds a stash of goods, and a crowd rushes around it. Two wiry young men start wrestling over a cardboard box, until one whacks the other in the leg with a plank of wood and forces him to give up. In the meantime, a skinny teenager has rushed between them to pull out a huge plastic sack and sprints away with it at breakneck speed.
Around the corner, three young men are standing on the roof of a building throwing boxes into a crowd. As one gets ready to launch, people raise their arms and shout out for him to lob it in their direction. The man grins from ear to ear and hurls it with all his strength. Most of those waiting below have seen no aid packages since the quake. Relief is dripping in too slowly for the countless hungry. But here goods are being handed out for free, Robin Hoodstyle. We ask a woman what they are robbing, and she opens a box to show us: candles, a vital resource in a city where there is still no electricity. One box falls between two bulky men, and they begin to brawl over it.
A young man with a baseball bat and dark glasses pulls up close. "Relax," he tells us calmly in English, nodding his head to signal that we are in no danger from him. Lifting up his T-shirt, he shows his thin waist. "No food," he says. Next to him, a man with dreadlocks and a Rastafarian hat talks in broken Spanish. "We have to steal and then sell to make money for food," he tells us. "We all sleeping in the streets. We have lost our homes." Another man has a stack of boxes and is making a quick buck selling his plunder right there amid the continued plundering. A young woman with a scarf wrapped around her head hands him a bundle of crumpled Haitian currency, and he passes along the product.
Suddenly there's a crackle of gunshots. A group of police officers have finally sprung into action and are firing into the air from a block away. Such warning shots are not to be taken lightly. Over the past few days, looters have been shot dead by police around these same streets. We run fast with the crowd, trying not to fall on the smashed and torn-up ground. Fifty yards away, people have already slowed into a calm pace, strolling with the goods on their shoulders. A middle-aged woman tells us she is getting produce for her three children. "At least tonight they are going to have something to eat," she says.