Andre Berto Reflects On His Relief Mission To Haiti

Mar 1, 2010

After a breakout year 2009, Berto, 26, was slated to take on Shane Mosley on January 30, but the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12 changed all that.  With a host of family members still living in the country in which his mother and father were born, Andre quickly left camp and turned his focus to helping the relief effort.  Andre told his story to Peter Nelson.

Until I Left

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was a proud, but struggling nation. Kidnapping was a real threat that kept my family from returning there for over a decade.

Though I had the honor of representing Haiti in the 2004 Olympics, March of 2009 was the first time I had ever set foot on the country of my ancestors.

On that initial visit to Port-au-Prince, I stayed at a hotel, The Montana, which today is a heap of rubble.

I had gone to see a land my parents had always told me of, a culture so familiar though I had never experienced it first hand. I went to visit relatives, and to give aid to a few orphanages - to give back to the nation I'm from.

When the earthquake hit, I was in training for the fight of my life against Shane Mosley. I knew after the disaster that Haiti, not Las Vegas, would be where I had to go. I knew every extra pair of hands on the ground in Port-Au-Prince could make the medicine get to doctors a little quicker or give the grieving another consoling embrace. I hope everyone knows boxing is my life, but while I was in Haiti, I didn't think about it one time.

I wanted to document it, so everyone could see the disaster through my personal experience. In time, I hope what I've done can be proof that a nation can rebuild and a people can rise again. When I returned, my parents tried to watch the footage. They couldn't. My father sat in shock and my mother just started crying. She couldn't withstand the pain of all these people, these screaming children.

My father Dieuseul wanted to come, but he's had a lot of trouble moving around ever since a car crash in 1998 broke his spine, leg, and shoulder. I remember being 13 when it happened and we had already made the funeral arrangements for him because after the second or third surgery, he went into a coma for eight months. It was a difficult time, and when the earthquake struck, I felt if I could be there for even one person who was losing a loved one, I had to go do that.

On my plane ride to Port-Au-Prince, the face of an orphan I met in Haiti last March kept running through my head all night. Isabella was a five-year-old beautiful girl who had a smile that reminded me of me a bit. She looked like she could be my daughter. At her orphanage, she clung to my legs like she wanted me to take her home. I didn't. I wish I had.

Not long before I got on the plane, I got a call: the orphanage had been destroyed.

The Hospital

Arriving at Port-Au-Prince with my older brother Cleveland, I smell the decomposing bodies. It isn't a strong smell, but the heat's sweltering and the air is congested with the odor.

I head straight to the hospital of Medishare, the nonprofit medical volunteer group run by Dr. Barth Green who arranged for my visit. The hospital isn't a building, but more like an open-air circus tent.

It's about 7 p.m. Doctors are already 13 hours into days lasting over 20. In the beginning, there were cots, no showers, no bathrooms, nothing but canned food. They worked through the sweat, the gore, and the mosquitoes. They cleaned gashes, did surgeries, and carted off the dead. They're trying to save as many lives as they can with the limited supplies that they have. Every procedure they do is rawer than they'd wish. The frustration is indescribable.

The medics are only allowed to stay about four days. Once at the tent, I see why: A doctor from New York is pacing around and yelling at people for no reason. The head of Medishare points him out to me and says, "This guy right here needs to be sent home. He's stayed too long. He's losing it."

As we pass out food, I look to the side and see a lady's wounded leg having bandages unwrapped. The removal of the bandages reveals an open amputation, and the insides are out like a big chunk of meat - like a dog got at it.

I'm at first pretty fidgety and I jump, "Oh my god!" My brother pulls me over and calms me down, saying, "Man, relax. You can't be doing this." From then on, I keep it inside.

A news crew comes over to cover me at one point at the hospital tent where I was talking with a little girl who broke her leg. Five minutes in, the reporter and the translator just start crying. They can't take it.

Within hours, we see agony sweeping through: a man loses his wife of 30 years. Kids are holding up arms with missing hands or torn flesh that looks like shark bites. A girl looks to be ok and suddenly goes into cardiac arrest. A boy has been standing catatonic - apparently for days and in the same spot. He is the only surviving member of his family. You ask him questions -- he doesn't answer. Just these eyes staring out into nothing. He's now one of half a million Haitian orphans.


On my first day, a mother is carried to the hospital by her family with a deep cut on her back from a rock that landed on top of her. She needs surgery, but afterwards the doctors don't have all the right tools to continue to keep the wound clean. Her wound becomes infected, bringing on a coma, and her children and sisters pray for her each night. They know she won't make it. On my third day in Haiti, she dies. I help move her onto a gurney.

Then comes the worst part: We have to ask the family what they want to do with the body. But these people are either already poor or their home is destroyed. They don't have any money now. They don't have anything. They don't know what to do with the body. They can't have a funeral. They just cry and say, "I don't know."

We carry her away from the tent for the wounded and into a tent for the dead about a hundred yards away. A big truck stops at the compound every day, picks up the bodies and goes off.

The family can't stay around. The space inside the tent is just too crowded with those in need.

If you're distraught, you can't show it. You had to stay strong for the victims. So if you need a moment, you walk outside into the darkness. At times, I have to go out there and break down.

Being so emotionally attached to what was going on, I know I can take a step back by turning to the video and explaining what was happening. The video is kind of therapeutic, helping me not keep everything bottled in that was going on.

The next day, a baby named Kevin was found. Some parents would just abandon their kids after the earthquake. They couldn't take care of the kids, so they'd just leave them behind. To see one of these babies saved in the mix of all this dying -- it's disarming. It gave me so much hope to know this baby survived and now is going to have a chance.

Creole Memories

When I was a kid, I used to be a prankster: I'd put powder on my face and jump out of the closet to scare my mom. She used to say this Creole word in shock, "Amwe!" Like, "Oh my God." My brother and I used to poke fun of her for it. Sometimes, we'd get in trouble. But when my uncle, Jean-Pierre Destinot, was in town, I knew she'd let this kind of thing slide.

He owned a tire shop in Port-Au-Prince and made a good enough living he could visit us in Florida with his green card. I remember when we were kids it was always like a vacation when he'd make the trip because my mother was so happy to see him that we could get away with being bad little kids.

I'd stay at a friend's house too late and eat sweets right in front of my mom just before dinner. My mother would be burning to punish us, but my uncle would just give his sister a look like, "Let the kids be." And my mom would just smile because she never got to see him too much. She was always so happy with him around.

Three days after the earthquake, we heard: My uncle and his whole family were crushed to death by the cinderblocks of their home.

Haitian families are big, but close. I'm one of seven children. Six of us live in the United States, but my older sister Naomi was born in Haiti and lives there to this day. The earthquake destroyed her house, but her husband and their daughter Jessica luckily escaped unharmed. We had some specialty trucks to take them out to the countryside where there wasn't any damage.

I was so happy to see her, but each reunion in Haiti is tempered by the anguish everywhere. My sister told me that after her home collapsed, she walked through the streets hearing people under the rubble knocking and screaming.

This was the worst feeling for me: knowing that so many people were under the rubble still alive. It was all I could think of outside the hospital one day, when I went by a school where 57 students had been killed under the rubble.

Driving past houses, you'd see families' makeshift burials of loved ones in boxes with their hands or feet sticking out.

It's strange what goes through your mind: I see a face that looks like my cousin's. I hear a voice that reminds me of my father's.

At one point, I was sitting in a hospital tent as a woman was getting triage done to an exposed gash on her leg. I was holding her hand and couldn't help but think of my mother as the woman writhed in pain, screaming, "Amwe! Amwe! Amwe!"


One kid, Kingston, rips me up thinking about him. Cool kid. He reminds me of my situation with my brothers and my sisters. When he walks into the hospital, he's ok, but brings in his older brother Johnnie, who isn't.

The doctor does a few tests on Johnnie and pulls Kingston aside, "Don't tell him yet, but he's paralyzed from the neck down." The kid, Kingston, keeps in good spirits for his brother's sake. Everyday he sees me and smiles and shouts, "Berto!" Everyday in the same spot next to his brother, making sure he's ok, changing his bedpans, doing whatever he needs.

The day before I left, around one in the morning, I see Kingston wandering around outside the tent crying. I approach him as he sits down on the ground, and tells me:

"I'm just waiting to wake up. All this just looks like a dream. I want to wake up. Everybody's gone. All I did was walk up the street, and the earthquake comes. I run back. My mom's dead. My dad's dead. My little sister and my little brother died. I see my older brother lying by the side of the house with a boulder on his back. I pushed it off him and waited for help until the next morning, holding him and crying. I lose everyone in one night except my brother, and now they tell me he's paralyzed. I just want to finish it. I just want to kill myself. I don't understand anything. Why would God do this?"

Now, I have a little brother. I have a little sister. I'm close with my mom and dad, and my older brother Cleveland is just a few footsteps away from us inside the tent. Hearing Kingston talk of suicide, I start crying, too. I say to him, "You can't do that. You can't. Go look at your brother in there. He needs you. You're all he has. You can't do this. It would only be selfish. You got to be a brother. You got to be a man now."

I know there are no answers for Kingston today. I know it will be a long search to find them. Until we do, we hope in Haiti for tomorrow.

Please donate to Medishare or another Haiti relief organization: http:/// Those looking to donate to his foundation can send checks to:

Berto Dynasty Foundation, Inc.
Attn: Eric Adamson
252 Magnolia Ave. SW
Winter Haven, FL 33880-2901