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Sean Penn Responds to Rolling Stone’s Haiti Story

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I am a reader of Rolling Stone. Full disclosure: I once published a short piece in the magazine and have been featured on its cover a few times. My experience in general is that the reporting in Rolling Stone tends to be at least reasonably accurate, quite often stellar, and, more consistently than most, can claim to having broken major stories with a quality of writing that would challenge any magazine of its kind. Janet Reitman is herself a polished writer, a bright woman and, I believe, a well-intended one. But Ms. Reitman has stepped into the wrong wheelhouse here. I myself, by quirk of fate, have been one of the most active (and often critical) voices of relief efforts in Haiti, and in my view, subject as it is to the reader’s judgment, it is her article that is a “disaster of good (journalistic) intentions.”

Reitman had the right idea in her instinct that the complexities of the situation had bred great dysfunction in the relief and redevelopment effort. But what might have been an important and revelatory piece on bottlenecks and accountability shortfalls, accomplishments, failure, crimes, misdemeanors and transparency, Haitian needs and the insight into paths forward inadvertently becomes a damaging orgy of presupposed bias, along with unbalanced and consciously woven attributions for effect, but at the high cost of fact. This distillation of snowballed half-truths perilously threatens to dissuade donorship while bolstering reluctance and excusability on the parts of governments and NGOs alike to release already appropriated funds at this, Haiti’s most hopeful hour for progress since the earth shook. Now, an August 24th blog by Felix Salmon has lifted verbatim from Ms. Reitman’s flawed text to independently claim and regurgitate her erroneous assertions. My finger is in the dike.

So here’s the thing: There are two primary themes in the world of international relief dynamics: one is emergency relief, the other sustainable development. The disaster of Ms. Reitman’s journalism here is that, though seemingly with the best intentions, and certainly peppered with legitimate critique, she came to Haiti for a brief one week, nine months before her article was released. Indeed, just as cholera had begun to spike, and where those she spoke to were likely on edge, and in an environment where scapegoating was at a premium. In her predisposition to indict the frustrating and seemingly static nature of relief efforts, she stepped into a cesspool of “experts,” some representing emergency relief, others entrenched in theoretical development, and a very few who actually sought, or practically applied themselves to, the notion of bridging the two.

In the first two groups she would find relief careerists all too willing to offer themselves as the poles for her polarizing story that borders on fiction. Typically, those both in government or representatives of NGOs who actively work in the field were willing to speak to Ms. Reitman on the record. Sadly, it is they who would be punished most for their honesty, as their comments were re-contextualized to support a story built principally on the complaint-culture predisposition of an uninformed public. I was among those (though least at risk of going undefended, here proven) who gave on-the-record accounts. I spent hours, both in person in Haiti and on the telephone with Ms. Reitman, followed by a 20-minute session with her Rolling Stone-assigned “fact checker.”

To give some examples of the way in which my own words were spun, I will begin with this: Indeed, as Reitman asserted, I was closely involved and advocated strongly for what became the first, and ultimately a very controversial, relocation. This relocation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living in a vulnerable tent camp on the Delmas-Bourdon border, which our organization managed in coordination with the International Organization of Migration (IOM). By “managed,” we mean the lead NGO coordinator and international project advocate on behalf of the families living there. This relocation involved moving 5,000 persons (or 1,200 families) off the side of a hill that the United Nations had declared the most vulnerable IDP camp to threat of death by flood or mudslide in the country. That assessment was shared by engineers of the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Navy Seabees, and virtually every engineer of every partner NGO with whom we work. A drainage mitigation plan was drawn up, and we set out to accomplish it. Among the 60,000 internally displaced persons in the camp at the time, if 5,000 were not relocated, 32,000 people would have been left in harm’s way. That is a fact.

What made the relocation ultimately controversial was the location and habitat condition of the alternate camp that was planned, surveyed and managed by other organizations after that location had been selected by the GOH on land they had claimed by eminent domain. The area was not selected, as misreported in Ms. Reitman’s piece, “after Penn and Keen met with U.S. and Haitian officials.” In fact, the only part that Lt. Gen. Keen or I played in that was in our mutual and staunch advocacy that safe alternate areas of relocation, with services and material support, be provided. Furthermore, her contention that the lieutenant general and I would have been meeting with “U.S.” officials to designate a location seems written with the intention of bolstering the myth that the U.S. relief mission was, in some way, an intrusion on Haiti’s sovereignty. The officials we and the GOH did meet with, whether independently or collaboratively, were U.N. officials, not “U.S.” officials.

As framed in Ms. Reitman’s piece, this alternate camp became a disaster of its own. The camp is called Corail-Celesse. And indeed, as Ms. Reitman reported, a few months following the relocation, a storm had hit Corail. Approximately 150 of the 1,200 tents erected would be collapsed by that storm. A single death was reported, by lightning strike. It was also wrongly reported at the time that the surveying organization, a U.N. designate with a grand reputation and working through the Haitian Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, had been somehow derelict in its duty by determining that Corail was not seated in a flood zone. I went personally to Corail in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The harsh rain had proven one thing for certain: the surveying organization was correct. And for those in the know, their grand reputation remained intact. The tents had fallen simply from harsh rainfall, sky to ground, not, as widely reported by the media, due to flooding. What those not in the field do not know is that 100 or more tents go down in EVERY camp with EVERY harsh rain. But rains in Haiti tend to fall at night, when fearful journalists dare not tread into “spooky” IDP camps, and too many U.N. bureaucrats have never seen the inside of a camp to begin with.

When I visited Corail that morning, none of the former residents of the camp I managed wanted to return to the hillside of Bourdon (a.k.a. Pétionville camp). I spoke personally to hundreds of them. They preferred to stay in Corail. They salvaged their belongings, 150 new tents were distributed to them, and life, shitty as it was post-disaster, went on. It needs to be said that this was a voluntary relocation and that all formal communications with those who opted to relocate was done with a factual sharing of all information available, which shamefully included the false assurances, given by habitation organizations of the U.N., that all tents would be expediently transitioned into the hurricane-resistant shelters that were to be placed on a separate sector of the Corail land, development of which would happen in expedient follow-up to the initial relocation. What was never proposed to those opting for Corail, however, was, as Reitman erroneously reported, “that they would be first in line for jobs in the Korean-owned garment factories that the Haitian government pledged would soon be built in the area.” (Though we all had high hopes for that to be the case.) In the construction of the article, she folds that false information (based on a widely known rumor of Haitian political campaign-speak origin) into my confirmation of the list of incentives and assistance that were in the offing immediately in her piece, connecting the rumored promise of jobs to my quote, “That’s the plan. . . .” WRONG!

An additional distortion in the Rolling Stone article is Reitman’s recounting of a meeting between myself and community leaders within an IDP camp tent. In Ms. Reitman’s article I am quoted saying to a group of Haitian community leaders, during the buildup to relocation, that “I don’t give a fuck about the rich guys who own this club.” This was a reference to the owners of the land upon which these IDPs had established their ad hoc encampment with tents made originally from salvaged bed sheets in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, not, as reported in Rolling Stone, from plastic sheeting (the rain-resistant sheeting she observed was only later distributed by NGOs and U.N. organizations). In the context of the article I had said it, and meant it just as stated. In context of reality and of the broader explanation I gave Ms. Reitman and her fact checker, I explained that I had indeed said those words knowing I was speaking to a group of pro-Aristide, anti-foreign “community leaders” whom, I had been informed in advance, believed that any whites operating in the camp within which they lived were doing so on behalf of the “rich white people who own the club,” which in Haiti has a resonating history of class division, forced evictions and brutality. I used those words about the landowners only in knowing I would need to court open minds, and had to make the separation clear between their assumptions about these landowners (which, had they been justified, indeed my words would have expressed exactly the position I and J/P HRO would have taken) and our own position as a humanitarian operation, presenting them with an opportunity to make a sacrifice for the greater good of the community. I will say here on behalf of those community leaders that they did ultimately make the choice to relocate and they did so with a proud and touching sense of social contribution. But it also has to be said that I am personally unaware of any other earthquake infringed upon landowners, whether white, black, rich or poor, who have been as consistently supportive of an IDP population and their NGO partners. William Evans, Coty Reinbold and the rest of the board of the Pétionville Club have been extraordinarily supportive. So, to have left my statement as “I don’t give a fuck about the rich guys who own this club” and to do it on page one of her article without further explanation, was an indication of the pages to come and the damaging distortion whereby ongoing relationships and vital collaborations are compromised.

On that same first page of Ms. Reitman’s article, a “U.N. official” who asked not to be identified made the scurrilous speculation that the relocation to the camp at Corail, which had most certainly prevented disastrous consequences at the Pétionville Camp, was to this unnamed coward “the most grotesque act of cynicism that I’ve seen in some time.” I believe it lacks journalistic grace to include, within the writer’s own agenda, such words as these, without identifying the interviewee, and seems to have been the result of the absent-minded slip of the interviewee to have properly introduced himself to Reitman. So, in an effort to indemnify both parties, I will risk here, though with a confidence of nearly empirical certainty, that that cowardly unnamed U.N. official was a fellow by the name of Jean-Christophe Adrian. And . . . if not, he, having spoken along these lines publicly before, will serve just fine to exemplify the problem.

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