PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — There is a teacher here at our orphanage who uses a walker to get around. Her legs and hips, twisted from a disease, make walking difficult. But she does it, every school day, going from her home to a van, from a van to the parking lot, from the parking lot to our school.
Her name is Nadia and the other day she was talking to me about the situation here, where gangs rule this capital city, neighborhoods are terrorized, and gunshots can break out anywhere at any time.
“I keep worrying what if they come to our neighborhood and we have to run?” she said. “What if everybody is running? What will I do?”
She looked down and I realized she was saying she couldn’t run, so she couldn’t get away. And all I could think of was one of those dreams where the evil is chasing you and no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape it.
How do you live with terror every day? How do you cope with the idea that something awful may come your way and you are powerless to stop it? That is what the situation has devolved into here in Haiti, where the government has collapsed, police lay down their arms, bribe money is the only currency that gets anything done, and gang members extort funds by kidnapping people in the middle of the street and holding them hostage.
Last week, a Florida couple came to visit their family. They were on a bus when, according to reports, gang members stopped it in the street, made all the passengers get off, identified the Americans and kidnapped them. They asked for $6,000. The family paid it. But instead of releasing them, the kidnappers asked for $400,000 more.
That can happen at any moment here. On any road. In any vehicle.
How do you live with that?
Happening close to home
I bring this up because, while criminal behavior is an everyday worry here in Haiti, it has also become a hot potato topic in America. Recent U.S. elections were won and lost on crime, how it is spreading, how it is tolerated.
We hear regular reports about American stores being looted in broad daylight, with personnel being told not to do anything, just let the thieves grab and get out. We read about places like Portland, where retailers, including major ones like Walmart, have left the city due to the rampant, unchecked waves of property theft.
We shudder at stories from New York City, where some people fear riding the subway, because random criminals push people onto the tracks. At least 25 people had that happen to them last year alone in NYC. Twenty five? Can you blame riders for looking left and right when they are on the platform?
We read about the tragically high murder rates in cities like St. Louis, Baltimore, and yes, Detroit. Or the new trend of “bank jugging,” where criminals follow people who make withdrawals from ATMs, then rob them when they make their next stop.
Last month in Houston, a woman named Nhung Truyong was reportedly followed for 24 miles after making a large cash withdrawal, then was brutally attacked by a 17-year-old who left her with broken ribs, a fractured spine and paralyzed from the waist down.
How do we feel, having to study our rearview mirrors every time we take out some money? Who wants to live that way?
But it could be worse
In Haiti, you have no choice. The police are overwhelmed. In some cases, they simply walk off the job. Or they join forces with the gangs. Sometimes, gang members will even dress as officers, pull over cars and demand money.
Because I come to Haiti every month, I got many calls last week after the New York Times wrote a long piece about the decaying conditions here, detailing how the gangs have taken control, and how people are being advised to take protection into their own hands. It quoted the acting prime minister, who said the situation has grown so dire “that the daughters and sons of the country only consider their future elsewhere.”
But a New York Times piece only flickers the American imagination. Then we go on to other things. What the Times wrote about is what Haitians deal with every day of their lives. It’s not a newspaper piece. It’s morning, noon and night.
Can you imagine if crime got so rampant that your only alternative was to move? You probably can. People do that all the time in the U.S.
But what if it got so bad that the only answer wasn’t to move to another city, but to leave the country altogether? Leave everything you know? Everyone you love?
This is the current crisis playing out on this island less than 800 miles off the Florida coast, where people now sleep all night outside the passport offices, hoping to secure paperwork to apply for asylum.
But make no mistake. This is also the end game for all crime that grows unchecked. Stores leaving Portland. Subway riders leaving New York. Residents moving out of Chicago and Los Angeles. It’s all part of the same thing. Nobody stays put when they are terrorized — unless they have no choice.
Too many here are in that situation. What happens to people like Nadia if evil comes her way? Where do you run to when you can’t run?
Nobody should have to live with that terror. If only for the sake of humanity, Haiti needs outside intervention. Not now. Yesterday.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.