PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Thousands of Haitians prayed, wept and danced among tent shelters in the capital’s main square on Friday as President Rene Preval asked his people to “dry their eyes” and rebuild a month after the catastrophic earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people.
Haitians joined in a national day of mourning and prayer amid the rubble a month to the day after the magnitude 7 quake wrecked the capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding towns and cities, and left 1 million people living in the streets.
In his first live, nationally broadcast speech to the impoverished Caribbean nation since the quake, Preval said Haitians’ courage had sustained their government as it looks for ways to relieve the suffering of some 300,000 injured and those living in hundreds of spontaneous tent encampments.
“Haitians, the pain is too heavy for words to express. Let’s dry our eyes to rebuild Haiti,” Preval said at a ceremony held on a flower-decked platform at the University of Notre Dame’s nursing school in the capital.
“Haitian people who are suffering, the courage and strength you showed in this misfortune are the sign that Haiti cannot perish. It is a sign that Haiti will not perish,” said Preval, wearing a black armband of mourning over his white shirt.
The ceremony marked a brief pause in the government’s recovery effort from Haiti’s worst natural disaster. The quake killed about 212,000 people, according to the government, and Haitian officials, along with international aid groups, are struggling to house and care for those living outdoors.
Thousands took part in the prayers and dancing in front of the wreckage of the National Palace and in the Champs de Mars, the main downtown square, which after the quake became a sprawling city of shanties, tents and shelters made of rope and bedsheets.
Little girls dressed in their Sunday finest were a stark contrast to the squalor of the camps, where a woman tossed a blanket over her shoulders and bathed from a bucket as people prayed and danced around her.
Preval, who has made few public appearances since the quake, joined Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and government ministers for a somber ceremony at the university beginning a six-day period of national mourning for the quake victims.
Senate President Kely Bastien, who was pulled from the rubble of the Parliament building and had surgery for a serious foot injury, hobbled in on crutches.
Preval recalled his own experience the day of the quake.
“When I went out in the streets the night of January 12, in Bel-Air I was stepping over bodies in the streets. In the nursing school, I heard students who were calling for help under the concrete,” he said.
“I went downtown on the main street, throughout the city, all I could see was bodies, people who were under the concrete,” he added.
“My only answer to all the pain was and is to continue to look for relief, particularly abroad, to help ease the pain of those who are suffering,” he said.
The leaders of the country’s two main religions, Catholicism and voodoo — Archbishop Joseph Lafontant, who took over after Archbishop Serge Miot died in the quake, and Max Beauvoir, Haiti’s high priest of voodoo — sat side by side.
“Never has a disaster stricken such a great number of Haitians at the same time,” Lafontant said. “But as paradoxical as it could appear, today’s prayer has turned us toward hope for life.”
Preval also asked Haitians to pray for former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who left a hospital in New York on Friday after surgery to insert two stents for a blocked artery in his heart.
Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, was appointed along with former President George W. Bush by President Barack Obama to direct Haitian relief efforts.
“We are with his family in the same way he was with us through our misfortune,” Preval said.
Clinton’s office said he got right back to work on Haiti relief on Friday. “Despite its staggering losses, Haiti still has a chance to escape the chains of the past and the ruins of the earthquake. But we all will have to do what we can today,” Clinton said in a statement.
The Haitian government said the mourning would conclude on Wednesday in a “celebration of life” with a party in the Champs de Mars featuring artists and musicians.
Additional reporting by Monica Machicao and Herbert Villarraga in Port-au-Prince, Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Cooney