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Berto shares pain, hope from Haiti

2/17/2010

Welterweight titlist Andre Berto was getting ready for the biggest fight of his career, a Jan. 30 unification bout with Shane Mosley, when an earthquake ravaged Haiti, Berto's parents' homeland, the nation he represented in the 2004 Olympics. Eight members of Berto's family were killed, and he understandably withdrew from the fight.

After the earthquake, Berto and his older brother, Cleveland, traveled to Port-au-Prince to do what they could to help. They teamed with Project Medishare's Dr. Barth Green to assist with medical assistance. Now Berto is back in the United States and continues to raise money for relief. Mosley moved on and will face Floyd Mayweather Jr. on May 1. Berto's promoter, Lou DiBella, is working to finalize an April 10 title defense against former titleholder Carlos Quintana. The bout would take place in South Florida, with some of the money generated going toward Haitian relief.

Berto has made public part of his journal of thoughts from the time he learned of the quake while training for the Mosley fight through his trip to Haiti:

At 5:58 p.m., on Jan. 12, I get the call. I am just returning from the gym, preparing for the biggest fight of my career, against Sugar Shane Mosley. I'm informed that the island of Haiti has been rocked by a massive 7.0 earthquake. I'm confused and concerned, but night falls with no idea of how serious the damage is, so all we can do is wait. The morning sun rises and reveals the powerful strength of Mother Nature -- thousands of people dead on the streets, people being pulled from the rubble and buildings that were smashed to the ground. As I sit watching CNN, a chilling sensation runs down my spine. I feel the mourning of a nation, a people that I call my own.

Later that night, I get a visit from my parents. They walk through my door with looks of exhaustion and worry. I see the pain in my mother's and father's eyes as they try to understand why. A country so beautiful, a nation they call home and hold dear to their hearts; a land that could only withstand so much misery and strife. My mother looks up to the ceiling, her eyes moist with tears, looking and asking for answers from above. All I can do is hold her. We stay up all night trying to call family in Haiti, particularly my older sister Naomi, but with no success.

After three days, we finally get word, but it is tragic. My uncle and seven other members of his household were all found dead. They were battered by the concrete blocks that once held their home. But with darkness comes light; my sister Naomi and my niece Jessica are alive. They were walking to a friend's house at the time of the earthquake when their home collapsed. So for now, they wander the streets with the rest of the homeless looking for shelter and food. Walking the streets at night, they hear the screams and cries of men, women and children still under the rubble.

Jan. 30 was supposed to be the biggest fight of my career -- the type of fight that every young fighter dreams about, against a living legend. With the fight only a few weeks away, I try my best to stay focused on the task at hand, stay on the same grueling routine I've endured for the past eight weeks of training camp. But at this point, with every mile I run and every punch I throw, I can't help but think of my reality. I go to the bathroom to wash my face and help clear my mind. I pause as the water drips from my chin. I look up at my reflection only to see the eyes of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the face of Jean-Jacques Dessalines -- the great Haitian revolutionary leaders who freed the country in 1804. Spirits now cry for her children's help. They say the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands during times of challenge and controversy. I decide to cancel a dream fight in Las Vegas. But now I have a much bigger cause to fight for in Haiti.

With help from Project Medishare and Dr. Barth Green, my brother Cleveland and I are put on a plane to Haiti, a flight I spend in heavy thought. Images of the schools and orphanages we once brought aide to a few months ago race through my head. Now they are gone. Sitting back thinking within myself, I am mentally prepared for what I'm going to see. The graphic images on TV made it look like hell on earth, and in an hour or so we're going to be right in the trenches.

When the plane lands and the door is opened, it seems like I've walked into a nightmare. The Caribbean sky is still filled with the smoke and dust from the rubble. Army trucks are everywhere, big jumbo planes are bringing in cargo aide and supplies, helicopters are passing overhead. It feels like I've walked into a war zone. We make the ride over to the Project Medishare hospital, which was the biggest tent hospital on the ground. As I'm walking into the tent hospital, I stop and make eye contact with Cleveland. At that point, we make it clear that whatever is behind those doors, we have to be ready.

As the doors slowly open, I walk in and just stand watching hundreds of patients fight for their lives. I drop my bag and go straight to work helping the doctors in any way I can. I witness hundreds of kids covered in bandages, crying for parents who they'll never see again, and asking to go back to a home that is no more.

When I walk through the aisle, a little girl grabbed my pant leg, and I stop and look at her. She has a smile that could light up the darkest day, cornrows in her head and a little necklace with an angel on it. I ask her what her name is, and she says it's Measha. I tell her she is beautiful, and she responds, "Thank you," in Creole. Then she asks me if I can fix her leg because it has been hurting. She pulls the blanket back, and I see her leg has been amputated. I look in her eyes with emotions leaking from my heart and can't believe how much strength this little girl has. As I look around the room, there are hundreds of patients who want that same comfort. On the other side of the tent, I see a handful of doctors rushing over to a patient who has just gone into cardiac arrest. I walk over to see this wonderful team of doctors trying to bring this man back to life, but with no success. The doctors shake their heads in disappointment. They pick him up and walk him out, another life lost. I am overwhelmed. I can't begin to understand why God allows these things to happen. I don't try to understand. I just have faith.

As hours pass and the day ends, it's clear that everyone is physically and emotionally drained. It's 2 a.m., and we leave the hospital and go to the house where we're staying. I lay down on the cot to sleep, knowing there are others buried and pleading for help. I can see their faces in my dreams and hear their cries.

In the days ahead, we spend some time driving through the streets of Port Au Prince and I see building after building crushed to the ground. The city air is congested with the smell of the dead in the streets and still under the rubble. We see tent fields filled with thousands of people who have lost everything but are still doing what they can to survive. Western Union lines wrap around street corners as people get money from their loved ones in the States. There are long lines of Haitian women with big pots stirring and cooking their hearts out, and distributing food throughout the tent camps. I make a stop at the Presidential Palace. There are hundreds of people outside the gates just staring at the rubble, trying to understand how such a massive building with so much history could be crushed so easily.

Back at the Medishare hospital, a truck pulls up with a father and his daughter. His daughter is unconscious. I pick her up and carry her into the hospital. When I lay her down, she opens her eyes and I tell her it's going to be OK. I don't think anything is wrong with her. There are no cuts or bruises. But not five minutes later, she falls into cardiac arrest. Doctors rip her shirt open and start CPR. The father starts to yell and cry. I grab him and tell him to relax, and he tells me she is all he has because everyone else is dead. The doctors revive her three times before she passes. Her father grips my shirt in pain and sorrow and falls to his knees. Wow … It's hard to imagine a parent losing his child and actually witnessing her death. I assist some workers in placing the young girl in a body bag.

Another day and another life lost. But many more are saved. It feels good to see doctors and volunteers from all around the world helping with Haiti's efforts. Within all the pain and hurt, I've seen so much strength.

On random late nights, I walk around the hospital camp outside and hear lovely sounds of old Haitian spirituals of faith coming through the hospital tents. My heart fills with joy and pride knowing that the strength of Haiti's history still shows proudly today. Amid all the suffering Haiti has been through over the years, these still are the people of 1804, the first free black republic.