, PORT-AU-PRINCE, May 9 – They\’ve been forced to swap school books for pistols, homework for hold-ups and drug-dealing: with no parents, some of Haiti\’s earthquake orphans have turned to slum gangs as ersatz family in a hard-scrabble bid to survive.
Square meals and the comforts of home are part of the past for thousands of youngsters who lost their mothers, fathers and other relatives in the January 12 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and traumatized the country.
And for some orphans in the capital\’s desperately poor shantytowns, roving gangs are filling the void.
In the notorious Cite Soleil, or Sun City, a clutch of youngsters trail behind a scruffy gang leader named "Toutou Soleil 19" and members of his band, darting around makeshift huts and clotheslines strung across filthy alleyways in the capital\’s biggest slum.
Toutou, a 31-year-old who still carries knives but says he gave up his guns in a 2006 amnesty, stops and points across a sewer to a crude sheet-metal cabin on a mound of trash at the seafront.
"There are eight or nine orphans who have been sleeping here since the quake," Toutou told AFP, eager to show off the deplorable conditions on his home turf where he says "no one has come to help".
Outside the hut\’s door, the children crouch around a radio held by Jef, a 14-year-old boy with angelic eyes and a checkered shirt. Toutou hands him a can of condensed milk, which he quickly shares with the others.
"There are a lot of kids like them, they are all throughout Cite Soleil," said Toutou. Though he couldn\’t give a figure, he said they were "many" and rattled off their most urgent needs — "a soup kitchen, a mobile clinic and water".
In the absence of any non-governmental organizations or local officials in this slum of at least 300,000 residents, the gangs hold de facto authority. So after the catastrophe, the new orphans turned to the gang lords.
"They come to us because they have no one else. We try to help, but there is nothing here," said Toutou, a wool cap pulled down on his head.
Jef said his parents were killed when their house collapsed in the earthquake, which claimed 250,000 to 300,000 lives in all. He now carries out "hold-ups" and burglarizes homes at night to survive.
— \’We live here like we\’re in prison\’ —
"We do that with other children," he admitted, saying he stopped going to school after the quake. "I would like to go, but I don\’t have the money," he said, lowering his eyes.
"At any rate, all the schools in Cite Soleil have collapsed," added Jimis, 25, a rapper and member of Toutou\’s gang.
Ads for rum and automatic rifles and pornographic photos cover the walls of the orphans\’ cabin, where they sleep in old boxes placed over a floor of rubble.
Throughout Toutou\’s tour of the slum, children come up to salute their "godfather".
Many of these youngsters have been caught committing offenses since losing their parents. "Some of them sell drugs, a lot of them have pistols the gangs give them," said one social worker with years of experience in the shantytown.
The United Nations recently started investigating the plight of these slum orphans, but a UN worker in charge of the project who asked not to be named said "at this stage, we have no information".
Ironically, it\’s the Cite\’s gang leaders and criminals who now find themselves in the role of savior and spokesmen, pleading for aid.
"We need help so that these children don\’t become like us, so that they don\’t become a danger to society," said a convict named Ea who said he escaped from Port-au-Prince prison during the earthquake, as did some 4,500 prisoners.
A bastion of violent gangs, Cite Soleil was virtually in a state of war from 2004 to 2007. An intervention by UN troops and a disarmament program have calmed matters somewhat, and a curfew remains in place.
At a hospital run by the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), there has been a recent spike in the number of gunshot victims "but not enough to worry about… yet," said the facility\’s director Karel Janssens.
Gang leaders, however, are unhappy. "If aid does not arrive, we will prepare a revolt," said one named Patrick.
Toutou echoed the call.
"We will fight until the end — until we receive some support, until we receive justice," he said. "We live here like we\’re in prison."