Pastor Frederic Nozil has learned to keep his head down.

Last year, the year he turned 53, gangs attacked his neighborhood in Pétion-Ville, a suburb overlooking Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. They ransacked the house Nozil was renting and set it on fire. Nozil moved with his wife and two daughters to a safer community a couple of miles away.

Still, he took few chances. This year, he turned 54 at home, quietly. A handful of people from his church brought a cake. They stayed no more than an hour. “Parties attract attention,” Nozil said. “You can’t celebrate too much.”

He schedules church activities to wrap up before a mandatory curfew. He will cut a prayer service short if he has a bad feeling about a police vehicle he noticed on the street. Some of his congregation risk their lives crossing gang checkpoints on their way to the church, the Centre Chrétien International Maison d’Adoration, so he knows to expect a smaller turnout.

Ministry looks different, he figures, at the end of the world. “We are living in an eschatological time,” Nozil said.

That’s how it felt in the early hours of March 18. It was a Monday, and the bespectacled minister should have been recovering from the usual slate of Sunday demands. Instead, he shut himself in his home for two days straight as heavy gunfire echoed through the hills.

Gang members in balaclavas wound past Nozil’s neighborhood in cars and motorcycles, ascending the main road into the mountains. They shot automatic weapons and left at least a dozen pedestrians dead in their wake. They stopped in a wealthy enclave called Laboule and laid siege to its walled residences. In one home, security cameras recorded armed young men with backpacks as they forced their way into a paver-stone courtyard and peered into parked SUVs.

In a home nearby, a man escaped the assailants, and then—because anything can happen at the end of the world—he made a desperate phone call to a pastor 1,600 miles away.

Roselin “RoRo” Eustache was driving home from Walmart when Miradin Morlan’s name flashed on his phone. Eustache had been stuck in Houston for months, staying with family, unable to return to Haiti because gangs have closed the nation’s main international airport and blocked every route to his home and the mission he runs there.

When he saw the call from an old acquaintance—the former head of the Direction Générale des Impôts, Haiti’s equivalent of the IRS—he picked up to hear a panicked plea: Pastor, save my life!

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Morlan explained he and his wife were fleeing Laboule on foot. Gangs had broken into their home, held him at gunpoint, tried to kidnap him, and stripped the rooms bare. They stole his cars. His private security guards ran for their lives.

As he put distance between himself and his attackers, Morlan remembered the hospital at Eustache’s mission, a place in Haiti’s south where he had once had knee surgery. The pastor had helped him before; would he do it again? Eustache arranged for a driver to meet them.

The couple took a hired motorcycle over a mountain pass and along a road that in spots is little more than a hiking trail. At one point, Morlan’s wife fell and broke her arm. After hours of travel, perhaps 20 miles, they met the driver in a town called Seguin, at the piney edge of one of Haiti’s few national parks.

“I am still in shock,” Morlan said, days later in a countryside hideout where he was struggling to find even toilet paper. “It’s really incomprehensible.”

Except, tragically, it is not.

Forced displacements are ubiquitous among the nearly 4 million people in and around Port-au-Prince. Gangs control more than 80 percent of the city, where roughly a third of Haitians live. The bandits, as many Haitians refer to them, have killed more than 1,500 people in the first three months of 2024 alone.

At least 362,500 Haitians have fled gang violence so far, according to the United Nations. Gunmen have driven residents from slums. From rural villages. From gated communities. From farms.

Mass displacement is reshaping everyday life far beyond the violence-racked capital. Gangs have outgunned the national police and pushed north, to Haiti’s quilted rice fields, and west, toward horizons outlined by plantains and sugarcane.

The ongoing violence compounds a hunger crisis that has left more than a million Haitians at risk of starvation. It is wiping out families’ savings and straining resources in already stretched communities.

Last month was the worst yet: More than 53,000 Haitians were forced from their homes. For pastors like Nozil and Eustache and Christian leaders across Haiti, displacement—really, the upending of their entire universe—has come to redefine ministry.

“This is my whole life,” Eustache told CT. Some staff at his mission, Haitian Christian Outreach, have been displaced as many as four times, migrating between schools and other public facilities that have morphed into shelters as gang boundaries shift.

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Local police have turned to the mission, one staff member said. Some officers have not been paid for months, and they are struggling to find food and beds for those who were sleeping on the precinct floor. The mission had helped in the past, even loaning police Land Cruisers when their vehicles were broken down.

“I need to do something,” Eustache said. “Because whenever we need them, they’re there for us.”

Haitians often vent their dissatisfaction with politicians through a saying: rache manyok. Translated literally, it means “tear out the manioc.” It’s what a farmer does when he grabs the long stem of the plant also known as cassava and wrings it from the red dirt, tuber to leaf.

For decades, rache manyok has been shouted in street protests and deployed against elected leaders on social media. So has a punchier, related word: dechoukaj, or “uprooting.”

But Haiti has no elected leaders now; it has not held elections in eight years. In that enduring power vacuum, experts estimate that as many as 200 gangs arose.

In February, many of the gangs cemented an alliance that enabled them to vandalize government offices and break open the nation’s two largest prisons. They have threatened to complete their conquest by occupying the main airport and the National Palace, Haiti’s iconic seat of government.

This week, a new nine-member transitional governing council is beginning the task it has been handed by the United States and the 15-nation Caribbean Community: quell the violence and, by some miracle, prepare the country for elections again.

They inherit a nation being uprooted.

If you wanted to mark the destruction in Haiti with pins on a giant map, you would probably start in Port-au-Prince. You’d stick a dozen pins on the pharmacies that gangs burned near the General Hospital downtown and most of its medical facilities, which are largely inoperative.

Eventually you’d put a pin in the former campus of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Port-au-Prince, a rare wooded oasis with a gleaming academic building that was finally rebuilt after the 2010 earthquake, only to be seized by gangs three years later in 2020.

You’d pin churches that have been burned or had windows smashed, and factories and car dealerships. You’d pin the vandalized National School of the Arts and the looted National Library, a repository of historical documents from the world’s first Black republic.

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After you covered most of the capital in well over a thousand pins, you could pick almost any route out of the city and trace the decimation along the way. If you took Route Nationale 1 for a few miles, you would tag several looted compounds of American missions groups.

Near the town of Titanyen, you’d drop a pin on the campus of Christian Aid Ministries, where a group of kidnapped Anabaptist missionaries were tearfully reunited with loved ones after escaping in late 2021 and where, only months later, gangs took control of the property. Next door, at the compound of a Mississippi-based ministry, gangs punched a hole in the concrete perimeter wall, emptying shipping containers and peeling solar panels from rooftops.

All of that pinning, and you would fail to even scratch the surface. You would still be five miles from the town of Cabaret, where the police station, like many police stations before it, burned in early March.

Cabaret is a small regional hub, a town shaped like an amphitheater at a crook in the highway. What people remember is that on March 3, no one’s phones were working—fuel shortages and roadblocks often prevent cellular providers from powering their towers.

Around lunchtime, a father in the market heard someone yell, “The men are coming!” He rushed home, grabbing his four children and running. As they sprinted through gunfire, his seven-year-old son was shot in the leg.

Oltina, one of the few Cabaret residents CT interviewed for this story who was willing to give her name, had fled another town less than a month earlier. She was outside when the shooting erupted around her. Racing to find her kids, she tripped on a pot of beans cooking over a fire and burned her foot in the boiling water. For several hours she hid with her two children in a garden.

Another woman said she watched bandits kidnap her husband as she escaped with their two-month-old son.

Houses burned. Stores and market stalls—the fruit of years of labor—were abandoned. Life savings and passports and family photographs were lost as an entire community fled into the mountains.

With no phones and no way to coordinate, the displaced scattered from Cabaret, heading wherever instinct guided them or wherever they thought they might know someone.

In a village roughly eight miles away, a young mother opened her door to an older woman she had never seen before. The stranger had four children in tow, and her husband had been fatally shot in the stomach trying to defend their home in Cabaret. Their relatives in the village had no room for them.

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“Pretend this is your house,” said the young mother, who asked that neither she nor her town be identified for fear that gangs would target her neighborhood.

In the same community, another woman, a twenty-something who works at the American-run ministry Real Hope for Haiti, arrived home to find more than a dozen people from Cabaret. A friend suggested they would be welcome at her place.

The ministry employee hosted 17 refugees in her two-bedroom home. She gave up her own bed. She sleeps elsewhere for now, swinging by each day to pack the clothes she needs in a plastic bag. In the evenings she prays with her houseguests; one of them, a young girl, has been suffering from panic attacks.

“Taking in strangers is hard,” the woman said. “But if God welcomes everyone, we can welcome a few people who are trying to escape from gangs.”

An official in her town estimated that several thousand people have been displaced to the village over the last year. Locals have grown accustomed, to the degree anyone really can, to outsiders roaming their streets, asking for food or a place to sleep.

At the ten churches around town, pastors say attendance is up. Some services are overflowing, with worshipers bringing their own chairs. Churches have tried to adopt displaced families to care for. People have cut bananas and breadfruit from their gardens and brought them to the sojourners. They have donated rugs and woven mats for sleeping.

Church leaders across the country report similar situations, especially in the south, where the UN says most displaced people have fled to this year.

But Lori Moise, who directs Real Hope for Haiti’s clinic, cautions that people should not get the impression that some spiritual awakening is underway, like she remembers happening after the 2010 earthquake.

“There are many who wholeheartedly hold fast to God. Others have left the church because they don’t see him answering their prayers and the suffering is unrelenting,” said Moise, whose clinic has treated gunshot wounds in survivors from several communities in recent years.

“When the gang violence first started, people prayed more and spoke of God more. I see despair falling on most people now. One quality foreigners remark about the Haitian people is their resilience and hope. I sense both are waning.”

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The number of internally displaced Haitians has grown, at least partially, because leaving the country has grown extremely difficult. The main international and domestic airport in Port-au-Prince has been closed since early March, after parked aircraft were struck with bullets. The neighboring Dominican Republic has shut its border to Haitian nationals.

But it is only a pause; the flight of Haitians abroad will resume as soon as airline ticket counters reopen.

Haitians who already fled to South and Central America are driving record asylum applications in Mexico. And in the United States, 168,000 Haitians have been granted temporary residency through a Biden administration humanitarian parole program that began last year. Among them are thousands of Haiti’s best and brightest.

Almost everyone has stories of those who have left: a church in the north where the whole elder board emigrated; a mission hospital in a central region now missing a third of its staff. Haitian Christian Outreach, Eustache’s ministry, has lost eight employees—including teachers and three doctors—to the program. Pastor Nozil’s entire music team is gone. Reginald Pyrhus, pastor of Église Baptist Bérée in Port-au-Prince, says that half of his middle-class congregation has left the country, many going to the United States.

And they are not the only brain drain underway. An entire generation of college-aged Haitians is currently not entering medical school or law school or other professional programs, or, at the least, have been forced to put studies on hold. Many of those who have completed coursework cannot sit for certification exams, because the exams are not being administered. So if and when medical facilities do reopen, there will be a severe shortage of talent waiting to pick up the mantle.

“This is a big problem,” Eustache said. “It’s going to take us time to find good doctors again.”

It will also be a while before missionaries and other aid workers return. Most pulled out of Haiti years ago, heeding escalating State Department warnings to US citizens. For the few hardy souls who stayed, the March airport closure was a breaking point. Missionaries told stories of evacuations at rural airstrips and helicopter rescues by a private group using the code words Operation: Rum Runner.

David Selvey, the American director of the Haitian American Friendship Foundation, a mission that operates in the country’s central plateau, got out with a group of missionaries who crossed a river into the Dominican Republic in dugout canoes. Someone put him in touch with a Dominican pastor who drove four hours across the country to collect them at the border.

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“It’s just amazing to me how quickly God’s people will step up to help people in the family of God who are in trouble or have a problem,” Selvey told CT. “And you don’t have to know them.”

Don Allensworth would like to see a whole lot more people stepping up.

Allensworth is chief development officer of Mission of Hope, a ministry that long operated out of a compound in Titanyen, between Port-au-Prince and Cabaret. Nearby campuses were breached by gangs, so it relocated to Cap-Haïtien in the north.

The ministry’s partners across Haiti are texting reports almost daily. In Jérémie, a city in the southwest, people are waking up to find children and the elderly who died overnight from hunger.

“Haiti is facing the greatest humanitarian crisis in the history of its existence right now, and it is not okay for people to starve to death,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a Christian or not. If you’re a human, it’s not okay for people to starve to death.”

Once one of Haiti’s largest facilitators of short-term mission groups, Mission of Hope now focuses much of its energy on food aid. With gangs blocking the country’s main seaport, the nonprofit has gone as far as approaching cruise lines to find new ways to ship in the hundreds of thousands of meals it distributes each month.

But Allensworth doesn’t want Mission of Hope to become known as a food agency. He wants the violence to stop and children to return full-time to school, and the organization’s Haitian staff to be able to work without fearing for their lives.

“The Haitian people just want an opportunity to live and make decisions about leading themselves,” he said. “They need to be free.”

To help Haiti’s police liberate the country from the armed groups holding it hostage, the United Nations has sanctioned the deployment of a multinational police force of as many as 2,500 officers. Roughly 1,000 would come from Kenya. Most Haitians support a limited intervention to help stabilize the country, and Haiti’s new transitional council faces strong international pressure to welcome the security mission.

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But the operation has hit multiple delays; Kenya has said it will not send the force until partner countries, namely the United States, make good on their promises to underwrite it. Republicans in the US House and Senate have so far refused to approve the $40 million the State Department has pledged to help launch the Kenya-led mission.

“We need to figure out a way to get the dollars that have been allocated to Haiti, to get them there as quickly as we can,” Allensworth said. “Now is the time to write those letters” to senators and congressmen.

Eustache says he does not know how Haiti’s great uprooting will end, or when. He is homesick. He wishes he were back in his country, praying in person with Haitians who have nothing to eat, instead of being stranded in Texas trying to persuade Americans that they have too much to eat.

But the best plan he can formulate right now is to keep telling people how much it hurts to watch his world unravel.

When he speaks about it, he seems at times on the verge of tears. “We need to continue to do what we’ve been doing, making people aware of the situation,” Eustache said. “We cannot let our candle die on us.”

With reporting by Franco lacomini in Brazil and Espeson Toussaint in Haiti.

Andy Olsen is senior editor at CT.

[ This article is also available in Français. ]