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‘He held an M16 rifle right in my back’ – Janice survives Haiti

Janice has flown with MAF Haiti hundreds of times (credit :J Cotrone)
Dr Janice Cotrone, Dean of the Wesleyan University’s Haiti School of Nursing, was forced to leave Haiti a year ago when gang violence made life in Haiti too dangerous. In MAF UK’s latest podcast episode, the MAF frequent flyer tells Josh Carter how she survived armed robbery and why she depended on MAF for over 30 years

On Saturday 26 August, a gang opened fire on hundreds of Christians in Haiti’s capital Port-Au-Prince. They were on a protest march in a bid to rid the area of gangs – at least seven people were killed (source: BBC).

In a new human rights report released by the UN’s office in Haiti ‘BINUH’, murder, violence and kidnappings have increased by 14% (a total of 1,860 cases) from April to June, compared to the first quarter of 2023.

Such escalating violence forced MAF frequent flyer Dr Janice Cotrone to leave her beloved Haiti a year ago.

In the ‘Flying for Life’ podcast, Janice recalls how she first fell in love with Haiti at the age of 16 during an American summer mission trip.

After qualifying as a nurse, she returned again and again, predominantly working in La Gonâve Wesleyan Hospital – the only hospital on the isolated island of La Gonâve, off the west coast of Haiti.

Janice was shocked by the quality of nursing care and the lack of medical professionals in that part of the Caribbean, so she decided to do something about it and make it her life’s work:

‘The quality of nursing education was not as it should be and patients were not getting good care, so in 2012 I started developing a four year Registered General Nursing programme where graduates could get a degree.
‘Today in the US, there’s one nurse for every 115 people – in Haiti, it’s one for every 9,000! That’s not good enough for me and I’ll keep going until that changes!’

— Dr J Cotrone, frequent flyer & Dean of Wesleyan University’s Haiti School of Nursing
Around 30 nurses graduate from Janice’s nursing school every year (credit:J Cotrone)
Around 30 nurses graduate from Janice’s nursing school every year (credit:J Cotrone)

In 2014, Janice founded the Wesleyan University’s Haiti School of Nursing on La Gonâve Island next to the existing La Gonâve Wesleyan Hospital.

Today, it’s the number one nursing school in the country where around 30 nurses graduate every year. In October, the school will enrol its 10th cohort of students.

The Wesleyan University’s Haiti School of Nursing produces the best nurses in the country (credit: J Cotrone)
The Wesleyan University’s Haiti School of Nursing produces the best nurses in the country (credit: J Cotrone)

Locals are living in fear

For years, Haiti has been a fragile country politically and economically. Its poor infrastructure battered by a barrage of natural disasters makes its inhabitants even more vulnerable.

MAF operated out of the capital Port-Au-Prince for nearly 40 years until April this year. Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse two years ago however, the security situation has got progressively worse with frequent kidnappings, gang violence and revenge killings, forcing MAF to temporarily suspend flying.

MAF still has a presence in Haiti but flying is currently suspended (credit: Zachary Francois)
MAF still has a presence in Haiti but flying is currently suspended (credit: Zachary Francois)

With no elected officials, illegal gangs have filled the void and taken over Port-Au-Prince and surrounding areas, making it a ‘no go’ zone for many international organisations.

Although not currently flying, MAF retains a skeleton crew in the capital until it can find a solution to serve the people of Haiti safely, without putting their own staff at risk.

In the meantime, locals live in fear and face growing food insecurity as gangs hamper Haiti’s means of production and impede the flow of goods and services throughout the country sighs Janice:

‘Farmers have crops sitting in the field because they can’t get them to market. They are afraid of being kidnapped, killed or robbed before they return home. I’ve heard the saddest stories about acres of crops rotting in fields or rats or goats eating produce. People are hungry.’

‘Two men were ripping up my car looking for money’

Sadly, Janice is no stranger to being shot at and was once held at gunpoint during 1981 – the first year she worked in Haiti:

‘I was travelling into the capital for a monthly drug and supplies run for La Gonâve Wesleyan Hospital when someone held up my vehicle. I was holding my handbag, which contained the equivalent of US$ 2,000 to buy medication and supplies.

‘Two men were ripping up my car looking for money, another held an M16 rifle right in my back. My bag was right in front of me and I just prayed for the Lord to make it invisible, which I think he did! I talked to the man with the gun about his family and garden to try and diffuse the situation.

‘Eventually he put the gun down, but they tore the car apart. They had the seats out and ripped up the carpet. I said, “You’re not going to turn that car back over to me like that? You took it apart, you put it back together again.” They did, so I went on my merry way!’

Miraculously, the culprits did not steal anything.

Credit to Janice, this terrifying experience did not deter her mission. She continued working in Haiti until 2022 when levels of gang violence reached an unprecedented high.

Despite attempted armed robbery, Janice continued with her ministry (credit: J Cotrone)
Despite attempted armed robbery, Janice continued with her ministry (credit: J Cotrone)

Last August, Janice was urged to leave the country for her own safety by her risk management team:

‘The trajectory of violence was increasing. They pulled us out when MAF decided to stop flying. That was a real gamechanger and none of us will go back in until MAF is flying again.’

Dr J Cotrone, frequent flyer & Dean of Wesleyan University’s Haiti School of Nursing
Hijacking and piracy are rife

From 1990 to 2001 and from 2012 until last August, Janice flew hundreds of times with MAF. Every two weeks, she would fly between mainland Haiti and La Gonâve Island.

‘The island depends on the mainland for everything – food, hospital supplies, medication, school resources, etc, because those things are just not available on the island. If we don’t have the ability to travel back and forth, 140,000 islanders are compromised in every way. When MAF flew us, it took 25 minutes instead of half a day by boat.’

But boat travel has become increasingly dangerous says Janice:

‘Traders travel to the mainland to purchase things and return to the island to sell them, but gangs have figured that out. Now they pirate boats, rob them of their supplies or money and even capsize and burn them. Some people who’ve been burned have made it to the mainland and got treated, others have died. It’s tragic that gangs are using piracy to increase their haul at the expense of their own people.’

Despite the danger and chaos on the ground, MAF was able to provide Janice and others safe passage by air so they could continue serving the Haitian people.

Janice (L) on one of her many MAF flights to La Gonâve Island (credit: J Cotrone)
Janice (L) on one of her many MAF flights to La Gonâve Island (credit: J Cotrone)

‘MAF made it safe to go back and forth to the island – without MAF, that’s currently impossible.’

‘I was so thankful that everything got there safely’

Just before MAF temporarily suspended its operations, Janice and MAF joined forces one last time in March when MAF delivered critical learning resources and equipment for Janice’s nursing students on La Gonâve Island.

‘Our laptops were literally on their last legs. Our textbooks were dog-eared. Our sophomores needed nurses’ caps for their capping ceremony, and our skills lab needed supplies for students to master the 150 skills necessary for patient care.

‘I had thousands of dollars’ worth of new textbooks and supplies and there was no way to get them to the island other than by MAF. Those books and supplies were key to my students learning those skills.

‘12 heavy boxes were shipped in February. My heart was heavy that they wouldn’t make it or that items would be stolen. When word came that MAF was pulling out on 1 April and only emergency flights were scheduled, there was a flurry of emails with MAF, and hallelujah, they agreed to fly everything to La Gonâve!’

Trainee nurses would not be able to study properly without the medical textbooks delivered by one of MAF’s last flights to the island (credit: J Cotrone)
Trainee nurses would not be able to study properly without the medical textbooks delivered by one of MAF’s last flights to the island (credit: J Cotrone)

It was a huge relief for Janice when her cargo finally arrived on one of MAF’s last flights to the island:

‘When I finally got word from MAF that they had approved the flight, I had tears in my eyes. Those boxes of precious cargo were flown to La Gonâve and every single item was accounted for!

‘Sophomores squealed with delight and clapped when those caps were unpacked! The entire student body is ecstatic with the new textbooks and everyone is so grateful for the computers.

‘I’m very grateful that MAF approved that shipment of supplies. I was so thankful that everything got there safely.’

‘My son would not be here today without MAF’

Joshua held by his late father, Mitchell (credit: J Cotrone)
Joshua held by his late father, Mitchell (credit: J Cotrone)

This wasn’t the first time that MAF had saved the day for Janice. Her Haitian adopted son Joshua nearly died if it were not for MAF’s medevac 20 years ago.

‘My son would not be here today without MAF. We were living in Port-au-Prince when my then two-and-a-half-year-old son contracted malaria and typhoid. My late husband and I knew that we had to get him to La Gonâve Wesleyan Hospital on the island because no other hospital in Haiti would admit him because his records were on the island.

‘MAF medevacked us there and I thought that we were going to lose him on the way. Thank the Lord we didn’t! If it hadn’t been for MAF that day, I would have lost my son. It’s an organisation that I believe in – I can’t say enough how grateful I am for this ministry.’

Joshua graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University in 2020 (credit: J Cotrone)
Joshua graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University in 2020 (credit: J Cotrone)

Today, 24-year-old Joshua resides in Missouri and works in a museum.

‘I can’t do my job properly without MAF’
Current circumstances are preventing Janice from teaching in class (credit:J Cotrone)
Current circumstances are preventing Janice from teaching in class (credit:J Cotrone)
Janice loves to attend graduation which wasn’t possible this year (credit: J Cotrone)
Janice loves to attend graduation which wasn’t possible this year (credit: J Cotrone)

Janice is currently doing her job remotely in Missouri, but it’s simply not the same as being in Haiti she sighs:

‘Fortunately, I can still teach online. I take part in faculty meetings and student conferences, but I just can’t be there. As a hands-on person, I like to hug the students and tell them how proud I am of them.

‘I wanted to be at their graduation when they all received their nurses’ caps, gold lapel cross pins and white coats, but I couldn’t physically be there, which tore my heart out. It was horrible and it still is.’

‘Capping’ is an important part of a nurse’s graduation, which wouldn’t have been possible without MAF’s last delivery of caps! (credit: J Cotrone)
‘Capping’ is an important part of a nurse’s graduation, which wouldn’t have been possible without MAF’s last delivery of caps! (credit: J Cotrone)

MAF operations in Haiti are overseen by MAF chief pilot and director of operations, Eric Fagerland, who currently lives in the hangar in Port-au-Prince.

Eric’s team are assessing the situation and devising a plan on how best to resume flying in a safer and more sustainable way to serve the Haitian people.

MAF’s Eric Fagerland (R) is managing a skeleton crew incl engineer Zacharie Francois (L) (credit: Zacharie Francois)
MAF’s Eric Fagerland (R) is managing a skeleton crew incl. engineer Zacharie Francois (L) (credit: Zacharie Francois)

Flying will resume no earlier than January 2024. Until then, Janice painfully awaits MAF’s return:

‘MAF is so worthwhile – I can’t do my job properly without them. Until they go back, I can’t do it as I did before. I’m very anxious for MAF to return.’

Dr Cotrone, frequent flyer & Dean of Wesleyan University’s Haiti School of Nursing

Story by Mandy Glass


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