From Haiti Hell: Perspectives from the ground a year after the earthquake


Words Hugh Bohane. Pictures Alison Thompson.

Australian nurse, filmmaker and author Alison Thompson is making a name for herself, selflessly volunteering to help in dangerous global calamities, such as in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian Tsunami – and now in Haiti.

When the Haiti earthquake struck in January 2010, her buddy, two-time Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn (who had previously backed her Third Wave film about the Tsunami in Sri Lanka) asked if she was interested in joining him in an important Haiti relief effort.

Alison and Sean have been working together in Haiti ever since then, setting up their own NGO’s and making a very real difference to relieve the Haitian people’s suffering. Both have received awards for their efforts.

Alison was awarded the (OAM) Medal of the Order of Australia (general division), while Sean was awarded the Hollywood Humanitarian Honor for his work in Haiti.

This from a letter Alison wrote to her parents from the field in Haiti:

Dear Mum and Dad,

I am lying in my tent in Haiti, typing on my iPhone under a flashlight.

How can I tell you about the things I have seen without making you cry into your cereal? I’ll spare you the details of babies dying in their own vomit, but I will tell you that after our first night at St. Mark’s Hospital our medical team broke down and cried, helpless at not being able to save everyone. Out here you are only as good as your last prayer, and God’s inbox is backed up.

My interview with Alison took place early this year.

Can you please give us a brief description about the work that you’ve been doing in Haiti since the earthquake and tell us a bit about weadvance.org and what its aims are?
A few days after the disaster struck Haiti, I flew there with actor Sean Penn and ten doctors to see if we could help for a few weeks. We found ourselves in charge of a busy field hospital (which I ran for the first 5 months) and an IDP camp with over 65,000 people in it. Sean quickly became the camp manager and started an NGO called jphro.org to help get donations to look after the people. After leaving JPHRO I co-founded weadvance.org with actress Maria Bello and lawyer Aleda Frishman. We build and open women’s clinics around Port-au -Prince and help empower women to claim back their rights and lives. Our plans are to bring all of Haiti’s women’s groups together to form a powerful union of women caring for women and protecting their human rights.

Right now we have a new clinic in Cite Soleil, which I think is amongst some of the most dangerous and worst slums in the world, but I love it there and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Can you describe the great stoicism of the Haitian people you’ve witnessed since being in Haiti?
The Haitian people have had plague after plague thrown at them with earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, cholera, malaria, TB, diphtheria, corrupt elections… and the list goes on. But they still stand strong and they are very spiritual people. They have learned to live with next to nothing and in some of the worst conditions I have ever seen anywhere in this world. I see an 80-year-old woman looking after 60 orphans by herself under tarps. I see orphans living in the dirt with maggots and worms coming out of their ears — but who manage to survive with the help of older orphans (aged 9-12) looking after them. I see women with amputated legs and arms still looking after their 6 kids. We could learn so much from the strength of the Haitian people.

What have been some of the success stories to happen in Haiti since the disaster?
The success stories are the individual volunteers and the small charities and NGO’s who are not stuck in red-tape and bureaucracy, and who don’t try to do too much but end up getting a hell of a lot done. Globaldirt.org is a great example and also grassrootsunited.org and jphro.org.

What have been some of the failures to happen in Haiti since the disaster?
The failures are the large world-famous NGO’s we all know who are holding onto the money and aid and who have become so large they are stuck in their own red-tape and bureaucracy. It’s really embarrassing and shameful. I don’t need to name them. Think of the large ones you know and it is them.

There are over a million people still living under tarps and it’s nearly a year on — what do you think would be future solutions for the people of Haiti?
I’m just a volunteer so I don’t have all the answers, but the main thing Haiti needs is sustainable businesses and jobs so the NGO’s don’t have to play God and give out food and water everyday. Right now the houses need to be cleared by engineers so people can move back in or government land must be allocated for rebuilding. People are still in miserable conditions, and a serious deadly outbreak can occur at any moment — as it has in the north with the cholera epidemic. Cholera is also in a small part of PAP (Port au Prince), but if it hits these camps with 60,000 plus people living in them under tarps in close quarters, we will have a major catastrophe never seen before on our hands.

Why do you think that less than 10% of the overall promised international aid arrived in Haiti?
It is the same thing that happens in all the large natural disasters. The aid fairy takes it away to “never-never get there land!” Much of the raised aid money doesn’t get there and there are a million reasons why it never reaches there; pledges are withdrawn, there is a lot of corruption and mistrust in third worlds…even to the simple fact that people who raised money then don’t know where to send it. A lot of money sits in bank accounts for years accruing interest upon interest until the NGO’S decide how they want to use it — and they themselves also want to use it wisely, to be accountable to their donors.

Some NGO’s have such a large overhead that most of the donations get spent on their own buildings, faxes, cars, air travel and $500-a-night hotels — as I saw during the Tsunami. It’s shameful. Another reason is that pledging governments don’t want to send in a lot of money just before elections as it will be used for election campaigns — and not used for the people in need. There are still another million reasons why it hasn’t reached Haiti. I know the Australian Government sent in their pledged money to Haiti. But the USA have not sent in their money yet. They are holding on to it tightly.

It’s been said that Sean Penn’s JPHRO camp alone was better equipped than many of the major International Aid agencies camps — why do you think this was?
Yes, it was a successful and well-equipped camp because of plain old common sense and hard work. Everyone got their head down and worked very hard with no sleep and very hard camping conditions. There was no red tape or bureaucracy. If they couldn’t do something, they wouldn’t take no for an answer, they would go in another direction to get it done. It was the largest and most developed camp in Haiti and still is. NGO’s don’t work well together, but Sean had them all working well together…and if you didn’t want to join in, then you had to go work somewhere else. There’s so much politically correct dancing around in aid politics, but Sean isn’t afraid to speak his mind about the truth of the situation. Some people may not like him or his politics — but in Haiti he has a pure heart and no agenda but to help the people. And I watched him live in a tent for 6 months (and still is) eating rice and beans and getting a few hours sleep each night. He is making a really huge difference while many others are still “co-ordinating the co-ordination of the co-ordination meetings”.

What are the different ways in which the international community can help in Haiti?
By encouraging business and sustainable businesses and by helping rebuild the education system with new schools and learning facilities. A huge international effort needs to be exerted into reforestation to promote regrowth of the trees and forests which will have a large impact on the quality of human life by soaking up pollution, rebuilding natural habitats and ecosystems. Port-au-Prince is Haiti’s largest city and it’s overpopulated and congested, a big part of its many problems.

What advice would you give to future volunteers (doctors, nurses, aid workers etc.) thinking about heading over to Haiti to help?
It will need volunteers and medical volunteers for the next 20 years, so never think you are too late to go and help. Go for two weeks — and for most volunteers it will be the greatest and most real adventure in their life. Healing even a small infection helps save a leg from being amputated later on. People die of the smallest things in Haiti and your trip will save many lives. The cholera epidemic alone will be with us here in Haiti for quite a while; it will spike during the rainy seasons and we never have enough medical equipment. The best groups I have worked with are IMAT (http://www.imateam.org) and CMAT (http://www.canadianmedicalteams.org). You can go to their websites to apply.

What are some of the basic human rights violations that have happened and are still happening in Haiti?
In Haiti, Weadvance.org focuses on women’s rights. The horrific crimes against the beautiful Haitian women are violated on a daily basis. I see women who have been raped by 14 men the night before on their way to have a shower and who have also had their tongue cut out so they can’t talk about it. There is no justice here. Daily in our clinics I see 2, 3 and 4-year-old girls with syphilis and gonorrhoea — and it makes me cry into my cereal.

What are some of the patterns you’ve noticed after the earthquake in Haiti which you have also seen with other disasters, such as after the 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka?
The accountability of money, blocked aid at airports and ports, and heavy taxes on aid after the initial first months. Government not releasing aid from ports, price-gouging, aid groups not sharing resources or working together, the corruption of government and business owners, corrupt religious groups, withheld money sitting in bank accounts around the world, NGO’s and personal agendas. The Aid business is a rough business to be in — and it is a business!

In your opinion have the goals of the recovery and rebuilding of post-tsunami Sri Lanka, for example, been largely achieved, now almost six years on?
No, there is still much need for rebuilding and many people were lost in the cracks. I still run CTEC daily in Sri Lanka. It is the only tsunami warning center in Sri Lanka keeping people safe by monitoring earthquakes 24 hours a day, but I may have to close it soon due to lack of funding.

A disaster gets help and stays “sexy” as long as it stays in the news – but usually after 6 months the media and the world has moved onto the next disaster. That is the way it is and there is much aid required still for the ones that were left behind: the 2004 Tsunami, the Pakistan earthquakes and floods, Peru, Katrina…the list goes on.

At the time of this interview I also contacted Sean Penn, who told me that he was in the process of looking for more land for his IDP camp in Port-au-Prince. (Click on the expand button on the upper right hand corner of the images once they open up to view large versions.)