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Americas
Haiti marks quake anniversary
Prime minister announces a revised death toll of 316,000 from last year's devastating quake in the Caribbean nation.
Last Modified: 12 Jan 2011 21:51 GMT
More than 220,000 people were killed in Haiti's worst natural disaster in last January's earthquake [GALLO/GETTY]

Thousands of people in Haiti have gathered in the capital Port-au-Prince to mark the moment a massive earthquake struck a year ago, killing an estimated 316,000 people, according to revised figures quoted by the country's prime minister.

Memorial services were being held in various venues on Wednesday, including one at the ruins of the National Cathedral attended by a papal envoy to Haiti, other religious leaders, government officials and foreign dignitaries.

Women and men were dressed in white in mourning as they clambered over the ruins for a better view of a Catholic Mass being held to remember the dead. Incense wafted over the crowds, as they chorused softly "Hallelujah".

From early morning, national television replayed footage of the disaster's aftermath, the shocking images of mangled corpses and screaming survivors triggering painful memories.

The magnitude 7.0 quake hit the Caribbean island state at 4.53pm (21:53 GMT) on January 12, 2010 and left an estimated 1.3 million people homeless, as well as the hundreds of thousands that were killed.

Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds reporting from in front of the presidential palace in the capital said a small crowd had gathered and there were no anti-government demonstrations as had been expected.

Our correspondent said Rene Preval, the Haitian president, was notably missing from the event despite being scheduled to deliver a speech at the ceremony.

"Maybe he was trying to keep a low profile to prevent public disturbances from going on."

'Major step backwards'

Jean-Max Bellerive, the Haitian prime minister, revised the death toll upwards on Wednesday from previous estimates of around 250,000 to "over 316,000 people killed", saying it was due to the recovery of additional bodies over the year.

"In one of the poorest countries in the world ... we made a major step backwards," Bellerive said at a news conference in Port-au-Prince.

Al Jazeera's Teymoor Nabili reporting from Port-au-Prince said there was a lot of anti-Preval sentiment on the streets but it was not all directed at him but also against the non-government organisation (NGO) community.

"People hear and see of so much money coming into the country to the NGOs and yet they don't see the immediate benefits of it, so they tend to think that the NGO community is not managing things very well.

An estimated 10,000 NGOs are operating in the country but some say the actual figures are much higher.

Most of Haiti's capital still lay in ruins one year after being devastated by a magnitude 7 earthquake [Reuters]

Despite an outpouring of global solidarity for Haiti, billions of dollars of aid pledges and a huge ongoing humanitarian operation, survivors say they are still waiting to see a positive impact from all the aid.

"If the reconstruction were serious, the mass would be happening inside the rebuilt church," Carla Fleuriven, a 19-year-old mother of three, told the Reuters news agency outside the cathedral.

"We wake up every morning in the dust ... We need people who can understand the country, who can change the country," she added.

In remarks at a memorial ceremony in New York, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said that despite a slow start, recovery is finally beginning now "in earnest".

"To be frank, reconstruction has been slow," he said. "International aid and investment has not come as quickly as needed, or as promised. The cholera epidemic shows no sign of abating. Yet, we are making progress."

Speaking to Al Jazeera in Port-au-Prince, Karl Jean-Louis of Haiti Aid Watchdog said frustrations run high because people are told that there is $3-4bn floating around but after one year the government still does not have any plan for their relocation.

"The government announced the events very late, there is a lack of preparation and some people were not informed … so the atmosphere is not what one would expect.

"The fact there is a vacuum of leadership and a lack of communication between state and citizen is why there is no proper focus on today's events."

Prolonged hardship

In Champs Mars, the capital'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 about 3,750 lives since mid-October.

A political impasse since a disputed presidential election on November 28 has fuelled further instability.

Al Jazeera's Sebastian Walker, reporting from Leogane which was the epicentre of the quake, said a minute of silence was observed by hundreds of people who thronged the cemetery where nearly 1,000 people were buried.

"The revision is definitely unexpected and it is a large jump in the number of deaths and it is not clear where the prime minister was getting the figures from.

"But in recent months there have been questions raised about how the death toll was tabulated as well as tough questions as to how all the aid money is being spent."

"I hear about aid on TV but us in Champs Mars, we've never seen it. We have no way to get out," said Ginelle Pierre Louis, 55.

"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.

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."

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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