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SÃO PAULO – After 13 years in Haiti, a Brazilian inter-congregational mission to a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince is about to be permanently closed due to the violence in the district.
The Inter-congregational Missionary Community of Nazareth was founded by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) and the Conference of Religious of Brazil (CRB) after the earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation in 2010.
The mission worked in Corail Cesse-Lesse, outside of Port-au-Prince. Over the years, the missionaries offered numerous social services to the local community, as well as providing to their religious needs.
A central part of their work was to monitor the development of malnourished children. They operated side by side with their mothers in order to help them generate an income, and also provided learning activities to the kids.
It all came to an end on January 14, when a criminal gang invaded the mission building and stole equipment and money from the nuns.
“They took control of the whole neighborhood and looted all houses and stores. Then they broke into our mission,” Sister Ideneide do Rêgo told Crux. She and another nun were kept at gunpoint while the criminals looked for valuable goods.
After a few hours, in the night of that same day, another group of armed men invaded the building. The nuns described the second gang as “even more violent than the first one.” Even the missionaries’ car was taken.
“Community leaders came to us as soon as the men left and told us to immediately escape. They told us that the gang would come back, would not find any more money, and would kidnap us,” do Rêgo said.
Church workers have been a special target of kidnappers in Haiti, given that their congregations or dioceses end up paying ransom demanded by the criminals.
Local women helped the nuns to pack and took them on motorcycles to another neighborhood. After a few days, they managed to flee to the Dominican Republic and took a plane back to Brazil.
“They are now receiving psychological attention in Brazil. That was a very traumatic situation,” affirmed Sister Eliane Cordeiro de Souza, CRB’s president.
De Souza explained that the tickets for the two nuns who would take their place had already been bought, but the growing violence in Corail Cesse-Lesse led the Brazilian Church to cancel the plan.
“We have been in touch with the local leaders and the mothers who were part of our projects. We are in discernment, reflecting on what should be done with the mission. But it is practically impossible to go on with it,” she said.
De Souza said that one of the alternatives is to give the mission to another congregation or to the local diocese.
“We wish to keep collaborating with that group, keep supporting the malnourished children and the elderly – even at distance,” she added.
Sister Maria Goreth dos Santos, who spent nine years in the mission and came back to Brazil in October of 2022 – before the current wave of crime in Corail Cesse-Lesse – is planning to go to Haiti next month in order to conclude the ongoing projects and close the mission.
“We are in touch with other Brazilian congregations and will think on the possibilities. But we know that it will be impossible for us to keep working in that neighborhood. We lost everything,” she told Crux.
Dos Santos supervised the building of the mission house a few years ago.
“The building was completed only two years ago. It is a new house. It was a great investment, even poor people in Brazil donated money to us. We never thought we would have to close the mission like that,” she said.
She has been in touch with the local community and receives harrowing news every day.
“Yesterday, one of the mothers that participated in our projects told me that her young son left Corail three days ago to go to another neighborhood and disappeared. The gangs are recruiting teenagers,” she said.
Another woman, an 18-year-old mother of a newborn, told dos Santos that her baby has been crying during the whole night due to hunger.
“She told me her milk is watery because she has no money to buy food,” the nun said.
Dieujuste Exalus, a local school principal, told Crux that he had to close the school due to the criminal gangs.
“Students are at home now. If I go to the school, the criminals will attack me,” he said.
Exalus said that the local parish is also inactive, given that the priest was under risk of kidnapping, and that great part of Corail Cesse-Lesse’s residents left the neighborhood and moved with relatives and friends in other districts, like Delmas and Pétionville.
“Besides unemployment and misery, now people have to deal with criminal gangs. As Christians, we hope that things will be normal again in the future, but we do not know how it can happen,” he said.
Brazilian-born Father Gabriel Martins Alves, who works near Corail Cesse-Lesse and had contact with the inter-congregational mission, said that violence has been growing since the killing of President Jovenel Moïse in July of 2021.
Moïse was facing fierce political opposition and tried to extend his tenure for one year, which led to great social unrest in Haiti. While his killers have been identified – most of them were former Colombian military hired as mercenaries – the conspirators behind the murder are not yet known.
“Many people consider that only with elections the country could take a new direction. But there is no signal that the politicians want to promote elections at this point,” Alves told Crux.
Most of the capital is under the rule of gangs. Prime-minister Ariel Henry has been concentrating much of the state power in his hands, and many analysts say the nation is heading to anarchy.
“We have to take several precautions every day. At this point, there is no possibility of getting into Corail Cesse-Lesse,” Alves said.
He and his colleagues administer a clinic in Croix-des-Bouquets. He said they commonly receive patients who were shot or wounded in gang violence.
“Most of the victims are young. Gangs keep fighting each other and the poor people are the ones who end up suffering,” he said.
Now living in Petrolina, in the northeastern part of Brazil, do Rêgo is saddened by the thought that she is not working with the community anymore.
“I keep thinking about what is happening to them. I know they are facing terrible things. But I have faith that God will show us all a new way,” the religious sister told Crux.