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Tensions and desperation are growing on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Though the border between the two countries has been closed for days, Haitians were allowed into a market town this week for badly needed essentials and trade.
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DAJABÓN, Dominican Republic — As the crisis in Haiti spirals deeper into chaos, the neighboring Dominican Republic is bracing for more migrants arriving amid ongoing tensions between the two countries.

The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has been closed for days as violence in Haiti dramatically escalated following a mass prison break in Port-au-Prince. But on Thursday and Friday, Haitians were allowed into a farmer’s market in the border town of Dajabón, which has a population of 25,000 and is about 120 miles from the Haitian capital.

Under the watchful eye of border guards, hundreds of Haitians rushed into the market to buy whatever food they could carry with what little money they had, as temperatures exceeded 95 degrees. Men hurriedly pushed wheelbarrows full of corn, eggs and drinking water. Women carried buckets of supplies on their heads. 

It was so crowded that on Friday one woman was badly injured when she fell off a bridge into the brush below. Bystanders said she lost her balance in the stampede to get food.

Meanwhile, a robust security presence is visible, with troops manning checkpoints and razor wire topping border fences. And each day, bus after bus is seen deporting Haitians who were in the Dominican Republic illegally.  

Security fence in the border town of Dajabón
A robust security is visible in border town of Dajabón, where border guards keep a close eye on visiting Haitians.Gabe Gutierrez / NBC News

There has long been friction between Haitians and Dominicans along this part of the border. The Dajabón River, also known as the Massacre River in reference to Spanish settlers who killed French buccaneers in the 1720s, divides the countries and has long been the source of a dispute that continues to this day.

The current violence in Haiti, where militias and armed groups have taken over the streets of the capital, is the culmination of a crisis that has been growing for more than a year. In response, Dominican President Luis Abinader has increased patrols along the border over concerns of a Haitian migrant influx. He is also building a 108 mile-long wall. 

“Either we all fight together to save Haiti or we fight on our own to protect the Dominican Republic,” Abinader told the United Nations Security Council last month.

Haitians allowed into a farmer’s market in the border town of Dajabón Thursday return with food.
Haitians allowed into a farmer’s market in the border town of Dajabón Thursday return with food.Gabe Gutierrez / NBC News

Across the border from Dajabón in Quanaminthe, Haiti, dozens of people gathered awaiting supplies. The largely rural area is far removed from the raging violence in Port-au-Prince. Instead, extreme hunger is the more pressing issue here. The United Nations estimates that nearly 1 million people in Haiti are on the brink of famine.  

Elena Franck, 40, crossed into the Dominican Republic with two of her teenage children to sell shoes at the market and gather whatever food they could bring home. Her husband died three years ago from heart disease and her family was growing increasingly more desperate. Her 14- and 16-year-old girls skipped school, hoping to help her sell more sneakers at the Dajabón stand. 

“We don’t have work,” Franck said. “We don’t have a president. We have nothing.” 

Elena Franck, a 40-year-old widow, with her two teenage daughters.
Elena Franck, a 40-year-old widow, with her two teenage daughters.Erika Angulo / NBC News

Quality of life is notably better in the Dominican Republic, which relies on a robust tourism economy. The roots of this contrast wind through corruption and stretch back to French-controlled slavery in colonial-era Haiti

White House National Security Communications adviser John Kirby said Thursday the U.S. was considering temporarily housing Haitian migrants at Guantanamo Bay, like it has done before. He added that the U.S. is not seeing a large increase of migrants from Haiti so far.

The president of Guyana, Mohamed Irfaan Ali, said Friday that a group of Caribbean nations, international partners and Haitian stakeholders, known as CARICOM, have reached an agreement for a political transition council. The agreement includes the resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who remains in Puerto Rico, as well as “a pact for a peaceful transition of power, continuity of governance, an action plan for near-term security and the road to free and fair elections,” according to a statement from the group.

Many in Haiti view the CARICOM plan to create a transitional presidential council of local leaders with skepticism. Militia leader Jimmy “Barbeque” Chérizier and influential Haitian politician Jean-Charles Moïse are among those who oppose CARICOM's plan, with Moïse putting forth his plan to instead instate a three-person political council that would include the rebel who ousted the president of Haiti in 2004.

A multinational security force — led by Kenya but largely funded by the U.S. — appears to be on hold. 

“We have a lot more work to do to get this multinational security support mission up and running on the ground to assist the Haitian National Police,” Kirby said.

A Haitian woman in the Dajabon open market
A Haitian woman crosses into the Dominican Republic to visit the Dajabon open market.Gabe Gutierrez / NBC News

At least 200 Americans who are trapped in Haiti have registered with the State Department as the escalating violence has shuttered the country’s airports and border crossings. 

Uncertainty over the future is debilitating. In Dajabón on Thursday, Waniou Janvier, 47, said he was looking for any money he could find in order to make his way back to Cap-Haitian, Haiti, to retrieve documents. In English, he said he was from Miami but when he recently visited family in Haiti, a gang overtook his bus, leaving him with no passport and no way out.

“They took my stuff,” he said. “My documents. My bags. My phones. My money that I had in my pocket.”

His only possessions now: the clothes on his back and a decades-old transcript from Miami Edison High School that he hoped would serve as some sort of identification.

“The situation in Haiti right now is terrible,” he said.