The Haiti earthquake on 12 January 2010 devastated the country; killing over 220ꯠ people, injuring more than 300ꯠ and affecting three million lives.
With almost 1.3 million Haitians still living in emergency shelters, Robbie spent two days in Jacmel, the devastated heart of Haiti, for UNICEF to meet some of the country's worst affected residents.
Read Robbie's heartfelt diary below...
I landed in Port au Prince first thing in the morning on Thursday 8th April. I was anxious, what would it be like, what would we see, would I say the right things.
We were met by the UNICEF team and immediately started our drive out of the capital towards the town of Jacmel, which was where we were going to be based for the next couple of days.
As we drove out of Port-au-Prince the road became more and more narrow and suddenly we were driving through beautiful mountanous countryside, but everything was flattened, there were heaps of rubble everywhere.
Somehow in all the horror of all the news I hadn’t remembered that Haiti is part of the Carribean, and the sea views and greenery were a surprise. As we drove towards Jacmel the scale of the earthquake hit me at every turn. Every single village and town that we passed were literally flattened, hardly a building left standing and yet more rubble still everywhere. At one point we passed the Korean army with their trucks clearing the mountain roads....apparently they had been there for weeks working their way accross the island so that traffic could pass.
After about three hours of windy roads crossing the mountains we arrived in Jacmel. Jacmel is the same distance from the epicentre of the earthquake as Port-au-Prince so has also been badly affected, with alot of the town completely destroyed.
We joined up with the Soccer Aid film crew and also Val, another of the UNICEF staff, who was a Haitan herself and, horrendousley, lost many of her own friends and cousins in the earthquake.
I was in Haiti to make an appeal film that will be shown during Soccer Aid on 6th June. Since the first kick-off on ITV 1 in 2006, nearly £4 million has been raised for UNICEF, helping children all over the world. I’ve met a few of these children myself – four years ago I went to South Africa for the first Soccer Aid to meet a young family of children who had lost their parents to HIV. They were getting support and assistance so they could stay together at home and continue at school. All the kids I have met around the world with UNICEF just love going to school.
What’s great about Soccer Aid is that all the money raised from the donations during the programme goes back to the very country that is shown in the appeal films. So, with that in mind we were all on a mission to make the best possible film whilst we were out in Haiti so that we could raise as much money as possible to help the children we met.
As we walked around Jacmel on the first day, its hard to explain in words the massive and devastating impact that the earthquake clearly had – it’s a whole different league from what I had imagined I would see. It was almost unbelievable, like a movie set. Cars completely crushed – some still poking out from underneath the buildings that have fallen on top of them.
I discovered a new language being used to talk about the affect of the earthquake, like when people talked about a building being ‘pancaked’ where its walls have completely collapsed and the roof has hit the floor. Other buildings have massive cracks down the side which is such a worry, as people are so desperate to get back into their homes to collect possessions that they sometimes go into buildings that are dangerously unsafe – just the day before I arrived another building collapsed, killing two more people.
Jacmel was quiet and empty. The areas that before the earthquake would have been full of market stalls and kids were now completely empty as everyone who lived and worked there had lost everything, including in many cases, their lives or those of their loved ones. Each building left standing had either a red dot (condemned - to be demolished) a yellow dot (with repairs could be deemed safe for return) or a black dot (considered safe) – a simple mark that decided the fate of family’s homes. Such dark symbols for a community to live with, it was like the plague, it seemed like symbols of death and despair everywhere.
But it was Patrice - a really cool guy from Jacmel who was our translator for the trip - who pointed out the saddest marking of all. In some kind of stamp on most buildings on the street was ‘Adieu Samson’ and ‘Adieu Tamara’. He told me that Samson and Tamara were important people in the community who had died in the earthquake and the stamps were homemade attempts to show how much they were missed. There was also stamps and graffiti on houses saying ‘I miss you x’. It was just so so sad.
After seeing the deserted and destroyed streets I wanted to understand what had happened to the millions of people that had survived the quake but had lost everything, where were they living now? So the UNICEF team took me to the main football pitch of the town – normally a sight that would be the highlight of any trip for me – but this time I really wasn’t expecting what I found. The whole pitch is now a temporary ‘home’ for more than 3000 families whose homes were destroyed in the earthquake. A sea of tents, each housing 6 or 8 families inside them
The camp was called Pinchinat. It was very cramped, muddy, without any shade, with bad smells and only the most basic toilet facilities. Thousands of families are living on top of each other, most of whom two months ago would have had their own home, their own space for their children to play in. Their lives completely destroyed in 37 seconds.
I was told how, when the earthquake struck, people had just run to any open space they could find, where they would be safe and where there would be space to sleep; Football pitches, school yards, pavements – these are homes now and will be for a long time I think.
Within minutes of being in the camp I knew that the very, very least we could all do was to try and make Soccer Aid bigger than its ever been before, to let people know how awful this is for so many people and to try and raise money to help them. It is wrong that children and their families are living like this and we all need to something to put it right. Thousands of people are living without basic things that we take so for granted every day and at growing risk from violence and abuse, which is scary.
In one corner of the camp, near where the food supplies were being handed out, I met Denise, a small nine year old little girl who lives with her mum and two brothers in the camp. She was sitting on a cardboard box with her brother and they were both very quiet and shy, but told me that their house was destroyed by the earthquake and their mum also lost her job as the shop that she worked in also collapsed. Denise told me that she had been at home during the earthquake in their second floor apartment, doing her homework. When the house started shaking they all ran out just in time, before the walls collapsed and fell down. They lost everything. All her toys, clothes, everything. Now the whole family sleep in a tiny tent – about 4ft by 4ft surrounded by others living in the same way. The only time she began to smile was when I asked her if she was going to school – yes, she was back at the school that she loved. Her beautiful face was so smiley when she started talking about it, so I wanted to go and visit her at school the next morning.
We spent a bit longer in the camp that evening, talking to different young people about what had happened to them and what they wanted for the future. Person after person told a similar story of loss and sadness, how their lives had been completely turned around, destroyed, in the blink of an eye. It was hard to imagine and so hard to hear.
Haiti has always been known as a poor country, but in actual fact, you know, for most people, they had their own lives, they were doing their thing – they had a roof over their head, they were doing their best to earn a living and care for their children. And now they have lost everything. They are back to the beginning, with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and relying on the support of international aid agencies to survive.
First thing – we went , as promised, to visit Denise’s school. I loved it. The school is one of the hundreds of temporary ‘tented’ schools that have been set up to replace the schools that have been destroyed and make sure that the kids can get back to school as soon as possible. I would never have understood the real importance of this without seeing it. I was so struck by how immaculate they all looked – their families with so little and living in tents and having lost everything still sent their kids to school in their uniforms and they all loved being smart and ready for classes.
Unlike yesterday, Denise and her friends were happy, running around and loving the fact that they have a safe place to play, and to learn. Their faces said it all. We arrived during morning break and within seconds I was being dragged into a skipping game. I was pretty good until my dodgy knees gave up, so I edged out as gracefully as a skipping singer can.
Whilst we were there, UNICEF was delivering some ‘schools in a box’ – literally a box which contains everything that’s needed to teach 40 pupils – from notebooks to pens, rulers, felt tips, to inflatable globes, portable blackboard and chalks. It sounds almost too simple but the delivery of thousands of these boxes all over Haiti is meaning that children can get back into the schools that they love, continue their education, and get some normality back into their lives, and get out of the horrific camps that they are having to live in. I saw that the box also contained a lot more skipping ropes, which went down pretty well with the girls, who quickly dragged me back into the skipping thing again.
As we unpacked the schools-in-a box, the UNICEF staff told me that the teachers are receiving special training to help them work with the children to deal with the trauma that they have been through. Clearly the earthquake was hugely confusing for children – some of the younger ones thought the world was coming to an end – so the support they’re getting now is critical.
The school was the most positive experience I had during my two days in Haiti. If Soccer Aid money can help make sure that every child in Haiti gets the chance to go back to school and smile like Denise did, that will be a fantastic, fantastic result.
After leaving the school, we went back to the camp at Pinchinat to see some of the initial, life saving work that was done in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. UNICEF took immediate action after the quake, setting up feeding centres, providing clean water and setting up temporary schools as soon as possible. I saw the medical tents already set up in the camps, and the ‘baby tent’, where mothers can go for support with their young babies and get everything from nutritional help to clothes and nappies.
At the baby tent, which was right at the corner spot on the pitch, I met Lucette, an elegant lady who I’d guess was in her 50’s or 60’s and was holding a tiny baby.
I sat with her as she told me what happened to her and her family. Her story shocked me, how could she cope? Her grandaughter, Mary Michelle, was born on the day of the earthquake, 12th January. First thing in the morning, the first grandaughter for the family. That lunchtime her parents brought her home from hospital but that very afternoon the earthquake hit and, horrifically, both her parents – Lucette’s daughter and son-in-law - died.
Lucette told me that she only had time to run in the house and grab Mary Michelle out of her cot by her ankles before the house collapsed, with her daughter and son-in-law inside it. She spent the next few days finding anything she could, foodwise, to give to the baby to keep it alive now that it no longer had its mother. Then she was told about the baby tent – and since that moment she has visited every day to get baby formula milk and to get the baby weighed and monitored. She told me so proudly that Mary Michelle is now growing and healthy. Without the support from that baby tent, this little girl would not be alive.
When we finished talking, we walked to her current ‘home’, which was just around the corner from where we were sitting. It was the strangest and saddest sight I’ve ever seen. Because her house was destroyed she had basically no choice but to squat on a welding yard, whose owners have said she can stay in the short term. The tiniest little baby girl lying amongst piles of metal in a noisy smelly workyard....so unbelievably wrong.
Mary Michelle has been kept alive because of food and support that she has been given, paid for by someone miles away who will never realise that they have saved a life. But the overwhelming feeling I had when I left was that this is just the beginning.
Both her and her grandmother, like thousands of families in Haiti, will need so much more support for so many years – to keep the baby healthy, to find them a more permenant home and eventually to get Mary Michelle into school. That’s what Soccer Aid can help to do.
Below is a selection of photos taken on Robbie's trip to Haiti.
Click here to view the full gallery.