PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitians, many dressed in white in mourning, honoured victims of the devastating 2010 earthquake on Wednesday in a sombre anniversary clouded by pessimism over slow reconstruction and political uncertainty.
Thousands took part in memorial services, including one at the ruins of the National Cathedral in the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince attended by the Papal envoy to Haiti, other religious leaders, government officials and foreign dignitaries.
Many mourners stretched out their arms, calling out aloud the names of dead loved ones and imploring God’s help.
Other services were held in the ravaged coastal city, which is still filled with rubble and ruins from the massive quake that struck the poor Caribbean nation at 4:53 p.m. a year ago, killing around a quarter of a million people.
Despite an outpouring of solidarity for Haiti from around the world, billions of dollars of aid pledges and a huge ongoing humanitarian operation, ordinary Haitians say they are still waiting to see a positive impact in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state.
“If the reconstruction were serious, the mass would be happening inside the rebuilt church,” Carla Fleuriven, a 19-year-old mother of three dressed in a white skirt and blouse, told Reuters outside the Cathedral.
On January 12 last year, she saw the Cathedral collapse, along with her home, and she now lives in a makeshift shelter, one of more than 800,000 homeless quake survivors who are still camped out in tents and tarpaulins 12 months after the disaster.
“I pray that God will provide us with food and shelter ... I hope our nightmare is over forever,” said another woman, Maryse Edme, 40, also dressed in white.
One of the world’s poorest countries, Haiti was already in bad shape before the quake. But promises from the international community to “build Haiti back better” now ring hollow to many of Haiti’s most vulnerable.
Reconstruction work has barely begun, profiteering by Haiti’s tiny and notoriously corrupt elite has reached epic proportions, and a national cholera epidemic has added to the misery of the quake-crippled country.
“We wake up every morning in the dust ... We need people who can understand the country, who can change the country,” Fleuriven said.
Haiti’s normally voluble radio stations played solemn music and shops, businesses, banks, schools and government offices were closed in a day of national remembrance declared by President Rene Preval’s government.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the special U.N. envoy for Haiti who heads its main disaster management body, was attending memorial services along with other dignitaries and celebrities, such as Haitian-American hip-hop star Wyclef Jean.
But in Champs Mars, Port-au-Prince’s central plaza where thousands of families made homeless by the quake live in a sweltering tent city, residents said the official ceremonies and renewed pledges of aid and progress for Haiti from foreign officials were like something taking place in another world.
Hundreds of thousands are still living in such camps, which are now being ravaged by a cholera epidemic that has already taken some 3,750 lives since mid-October.
A political impasse since a disputed presidential election on November 28 has fuelled further instability.
“I hear about aid on TV but us in Champs Mars, we’ve never seen it. We have no way to get out,” said 55-year-old Ginelle Pierre Louis.
“The diplomats pass through in the air, in helicopters, but they never come through here on the ground,” said Hyacinthe Mintha, 56, a resident of Champs Mars, which overlooks the heavily damaged presidential palace.
“HELL FOR US”
Mintha’s daughter, Hyacinthe Benita, 39, lives in a metal and wood shack with a frayed tarp roof and a thin pallet as the only bed for herself and her four children.
“We are still here in misery,” she said of the quake anniversary. “I hope this year brings serious change because 2010 was hell for us.”
Clinton, who co-chairs the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission with Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, has faced criticism for painfully slow progress in relief and rebuilding efforts so far.
He acknowledges disappointment with the commission’s work. “Nobody’s been more frustrated than I am that we haven’t done more,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Denis O‘Brien, a supporter of Clinton and chairman of the Irish-owned cell phone company Digicel that is Haiti’s biggest foreign investor, told Reuters in an interview this week that the former U.S. leader had a solid understanding of what needs to be done to get Haiti back on its feet.
But one of his big problems, according to O‘Brien, is that most members of Haiti’s ruling elite families have done little to help, seeking only to profit on the back of the catastrophe.
“They’re making massive profits on the importation of goods, products, services, everything ... Profiteering at a major scale is going on here,” O‘Brien said.
Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian-born actor who now lives in Los Angeles but has visited his homeland frequently since the quake, said not much had changed since the disaster.
“Everything went down on January 12th,” he added. “It might stay down for years to come.”
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Kieran Murray