Empathy for the Haiti I know


Haiti earthquake, Flickr image by United Nations Development ProgrammeI was dreading the task of writing a story about Haiti's earthquake. In 2006 while living on the island of Hispaniola (which contains the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), I wrote about the plight of human trafficking victims, but the same issue of justice doesn't seem to enter the picture when talking about an earthquake.

What light could I shed on the enormity of suffering and destruction with my slight contribution? It's the Caribbean's worst earthquake in 200 years and it hit the nation least equipped to cop the 7.0 magnitude.

Up to 100,000 are feared dead and another three million are suffering. If there is a place on Earth that could have done without an earthquake right now, it's Haiti. It's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 per cent of its people living in extreme poverty. What response would suffice?

My email inbox is full of statements and media releases from various church and humanitarian organisations around the world. These contain up-to-date information and details of the relief efforts they intend to carry out.

Crisis response teams meet to discuss what they can do. Even before the earthquake it was a challenge for aid organisations to provide medical supplies, sanitation, clean water and food in Port au Prince's shantytown areas.

In the face of human suffering, our instinct to reach out runs strong and deep. We either want to do something or we want to find out what's happening as a form of empathy with the victims. Within minutes of the quake, cyberspace was awash with people seeking and exchanging information.

Among the emails and news alerts in my inbox, there were two that stood out — one encouraging, and one downright disappointing.

The encouraging email was a personal message sent to me from a young Haitian man living in the United States who happens to be a Muslim (Muslims make up less than 1 per cent of Haiti's population). He was responding to a video I posted on Youtube which I took from the roof of the Jesuit novitiate in Port au Prince in 2006. In the background of the video you can faintly hear the call to prayer coming from a nearby mosque at dusk. He wrote:

'I saw your video about the Islamic call to prayer in Port-au-Prince. I am Muslim and Haitian. I wonder if you are in Haiti, or were you there yesterday during the quake. I'm just reaching out, really and I know my reach is not very far.

'Are you Muslim? What can Muslims do for them since most Muslims will hesitate to donate to the Christian cause? If you are able to reply in any way, I will be grateful.'

He went on to reflect on the oneness of humanity and religion.

'The Truth is one. God is one. Humankind is one son of Adam. I wish it were easy to convince everyone of this.

'I hope your friends there, if you still have any of them there, survived the quake. We have not heard news from our family in Port-Au-Prince.'

Quite a contrast was the news alert about US televangelist Pat Robertson, who blamed the earthquake on a pact between the nation's founders and the devil.

Haiti won its independence from France in 1804 after a slave rebellion. It became the world's first black-led republic when Jean Jacques Dessalines, inspired by the French Revolution, lead a group of rebel leaders and slaves in a revolt against the French rulers and became the first ruler of an independent Haiti.

Mr Robertson blamed the earthquake on a pact, cited in some historic accounts, that Haiti's rebel leaders made with the devil to win them freedom from slavery.

'They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon III [sic] and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil,' he said. 'They said "We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince". But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.'

Haiti's independence wasn't recognised for a long time by the US and France, who ostracised the new country because they were afraid their own slaves would rebel.

Responding to Robertson, the Haitian ambassador to the US, Raymond Joseph, cautioned against attributing the country's independence from France to a pact with the devil. He said it was Haitian independence that enabled the US to acquire 13 present-day states in the Louisiana Purchase and also helped to spur the freedom fights of many Latin American countries.

But it seems Haiti has never fully recovered from its fight for freedom and it's now in the midst of yet another international appeal to save it amid catastrophe.

So as hundreds of aid groups mobilise their resources and staff to respond to Haiti's disaster, the survivors pray in thanksgiving.

'Amid the crying and wailing, people are spending the night outside,' the International Committee of the Red Cross's head of delegation in Haiti, Ricardo Conti, said. 'People are trying to comfort each other. What you are hearing in the streets are the prayers of thanks of those who survived.'


Caritas Australia welcomes donations to its Haiti Emergency Response Appeal. Donate online or call 1800 024 413.

Ken Rosenthal Kent Rosenthal is a journalist for The Salvation Army, Australia Eastern Territory, based in Sydney. He worked in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2006.


Topic tags: haiti earthquake



submit a comment

Existing comments

Overwhelmed at such devastation and suffering, I will just thank you for reporting your Muslim correspondent's simple and true comment and call Caritas immediately.

Patricia Taylor | 18 January 2010  

Thanks, Kent. It's good to have some background on the daily struggles the people of Haiti face. In Wellington we survive the earthquake faultline daily, too, so 'there but for the grace ... '

Good to see you're still writing.
best wishes.

Cecily McNeill | 18 January 2010  

Good piece by Kent. But I'd like to see a little credit going to the Cuban medical staff and the Haitian medical staff trained in the next-door island. The Cubans have got two emergency hospitals going which have treated hundreds while the US and other rich countries
seem to have been faffing around like so many headless chickens!

Hugh O'Shaughnessy | 18 January 2010  

What a touching and humane piece by Kent Rosenthal.

Concerning the comments of the Pat Robertsons - and the Bush, Blair, Howard sound-alikes on our sadly conflicted Planet Earth - what can one say?

Thank you Hugh O'Shaughnessy for referring to the reality of Cuba's medical contributions in Haiti too: compassion and caring in practise indeed from that tiny little besieged island.

You know folks - and I hope this is neither too 'personal' or 'off the subject' - but the longer I live as a citizen of the USA/Australia, the more certain I am that WE are the axis of evil : and NOT the 'other' guys. Does anyone read me?

DAVID A HICKS | 18 January 2010  

Kent, when you say that "Haiti has never fully recovered from its fight for freedom", you must be aware that this is because of two centuries of debt imposed on Haiti by Western governments following its 1789 revolution, most notably by France and later, the United States. This was followed by Western - again, mostly US - support for corrupt dictators; most notably the Duvalier family.

And Haiti's last legitimately elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced out by a US-led military coup in 2004. He was actually trying slowly to improve the lot of his people, but he was a socialist, and the US couldn't have that in its backyard. Since 2004, tens of thousands of Haitians have been forcibly removed from rural areas to Port-au-Prince, where they provide cheap labour for
multinational companies. It's doubtful whether there would have been such a high loss of life had these people not been forced to live in slums, but were able to earn enough to build decent housing, or had they not been forced from the countryside to live in the overcrowded slums in the first place.

The question now is whether any of the aid expected in Haiti will help provide a truly better life for the Haitian people, or will the country simply be returned to its former status quo, with the multinationals in full control under the watchful eye of the United States.

Carolyn White | 18 January 2010  

@Carolyn White
"Kent, when you say that "Haiti has never fully recovered from its fight for freedom", you must be aware that this is because of two centuries of debt imposed on Haiti by Western governments following its 1789 revolution, most notably by France and later, the United States. This was followed by Western - again, mostly US - support for corrupt dictators; most notably the Duvalier family.
So true Carolyn.

They needed 100's of Helicoptors 2 days ago airlifting tons of water, food,..., immediately into the capital's hotspots!

So much pledged money but so little water, and food that should have already been already dropped there days ago.

I myself find it hard to understand why my own country (Canada), and of course America together, should have been able to easily accomplish all that and more in record time. It is shamefull how instead it is looking very late indeed.

It's already becoming "...too much coming, but too late getting there..."

very sad indeed for those poor Haitians.

Rick N | 18 January 2010  

Mr Rosenthal, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Majority of Muslims don't subscribe to the notion that Muslims can't or shouldn't help their brothers and sisters in humanity. Muslims are donating to Red Cross and other charities through United States. Muslim charities in US and around the world are reaching out to Haitians people in this time of humanitarian Crisis. All Islamic centers in South Florida are collecting donations and relief supplies. Islamic centers are also collecting special funds for Haitian Relief during Friday Services. I am sure Mr Pat Robertson comments will not deter anyone from fulfilling his or her obligation as Human beings.

Mohammed Amin Markatia | 19 January 2010  

As a correction to my article, I discovered today that I wrongly assumed the Haitian who commented on my youtube video was a man - she was in fact a woman named Itsunohu.

KENT ROSENTHAL | 21 January 2010  

Thank you Kent for your thoughtful article. Carolyn White is correct. Several other countries have not been “allowed” to proceed forward by western powers - just because they were slightly socialist. But so were the early Christians: remember “they, as a community, re-distributed their belongings - each given according to need, as equitably as possible.” (or to that effect).

To a Christian, colour, race, creed is immaterial. We must extend our hand immediately and assist however we can to every person in need. This is our challenge here on earth. “If you believe in the Fatherhood of God, then you must necessarily also believe in the brotherhood of all mankind” (the teaching of Bob Hawke’s father, a Christian minister - revered by Bob Hawke as “the most decent human being I have ever known“).

The people of Haiti must also be assisted in re-settling into an area which is not earthquake-prone. This will also be a challenge; but we must assist.

Mirielle | 22 January 2010  

Similar Articles

Haiti faces the best and worst of Christianity

  • Beth Doherty
  • 20 January 2010

Pat Robertson's comments about Haiti's 'pact with the devil' are unhelpful, when deeply religious Haitians are themselves wondering about God's role in the earthquake. A more welcome image of Christianity is visible in the aid agencies that are assisting in the relief efforts.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up