PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti mourned more than 300,000 victims of its devastating 2010 earthquake on Wednesday in a somber, poignant one-year anniversary clouded by pessimism over slow reconstruction and political uncertainty.
When the precise 4:53 p.m. one year anniversary of the moment the January 12 catastrophe struck, many in the poor Caribbean country’s rubble-clogged capital recalled with quiet emotion where they had been and how lucky they were to have survived.
“A year ago I was under the rubble. Seven people saved me and I thank God for that,” said Stefanor Mercure Alexandre, a 23-year-old unemployed man, sitting outside the quake-scarred white-painted presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s government had called for a minute of silence to remember the victims of what some experts have called the worst urban disaster of modern times. The normal hubbub of the crowded, sprawling coastal city quieted briefly and a clump of white balloons floated into the sky.
Earlier, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive announced more than 316,000 people had been killed in the 2010 earthquake, revising upward previous estimates of around 250,000. He said additional bodies had been recovered over the year from the rubble and some were still entombed in collapsed buildings.
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 from the recovery effort in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state.
During the day, thousands of Haitians, many wearing white in mourning, attended poignant memorial services around the battered impoverished Caribbean nation.
At the main memorial ceremony at the ruins of the capital’s National Cathedral conducted by the Papal envoy to Haiti, many local mourners stretched out their arms, calling aloud the names of dead loved ones and imploring God’s help.
Other religious leaders, officials and foreign dignitaries, including former U.S. President and U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton, were present. Without explanation, Haiti’s outgoing President Rene Preval did not attend this event.
But he did later lay the first stone of what will be a memorial to the quake victims at the site of the country’s main tax office which was leveled in the disaster.
In signs of popular frustration over the sluggish pace of internationally backed recovery efforts, there were small scattered protests in the capital by Haitians who condemned the “occupation” of Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers and aid NGOs.
“NGOs are wasting money” read a banner at one of the protests in the city center.
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.
“We wake up every morning in the dust ... We need people who can understand the country, who can change the country,” Carla Fleuriven, a 19-year-old mother of three dressed in a white skirt and blouse, told Reuters outside the Cathedral.
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.
“God made the earthquake, but it’s our leaders who are selling our misery,” said Sephonese Louis, 58, one of the protesters in the Champs de Mars, Port-au-Prince’s central plaza where thousands of families made homeless by the quake live in a sweltering tent city,
Responding to the criticism, Clinton, who co-chairs with Bellerive the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the main aid coordinating body, said he understood the frustration. But he said progress was being made in the reconstruction drive.
“There are just too many people who have been hurt too bad, who have lost too much. I don’t blame people for being mad and frustrated,” Clinton told a news conference.
“I would imagine we would have another six months to a year of very hard work before there is a general feeling on the street in Haiti that this thing is working,” he added, referring to the recovery operation.
Haiti’s normally voluble radio stations played solemn music and shops, banks, schools and government offices were closed in a day of national remembrance declared by the government.
Haitian-American hip-hop star Wyclef Jean was among those who traveled to Haiti to attend the memorial.
In a separate development, a group of celebrities including singers Sting and Bonnie Raitt, actresses Mia Farrow and Maria Bello and film director Spike Lee launched a drive to use their Twitter and Facebook accounts to drum up more aid for Haiti.
But residents of the Champs de Mars survivors camp said the 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 and the country is being ravaged by a cholera epidemic that has already taken more than 3,750 lives since mid-October.
A political impasse since a disputed presidential election on November 28 has fueled further instability.
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Pascal Fletcher