PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitians, many dressed in white in mourning, honored victims of the devastating 2010 earthquake on Wednesday in a somber anniversary clouded by pessimism over slow reconstruction and political uncertainty.
Thousands attended memorial services, including one at the ruins of the National Cathedral in the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince led by the Papal envoy to Haiti, other religious leaders, government officials and foreign dignitaries.
Many local mourners stretched out their arms, calling out aloud the names of dead loved ones and imploring God’s help.
In one sign of popular frustration over the sluggish pace of internationally backed recovery efforts, some 60 demonstrators at one point displayed banners in the city center criticizing U.N. peacekeepers and aid NGOs.
One banner condemned the “occupation” of Haiti, while others read “NGOs are wasting money”.
But in general the mood was quietly somber in the ravaged coastal city, which is still filled with rubble 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 Jan. 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.
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,” Fleuriven said.
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.
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.
At the site of the country’s main tax office which was leveled in the quake, Preval laid the first stone of what will be a memorial to the victims.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the special U.N. envoy for Haiti who heads its main disaster management body, attended remembrance services with other dignitaries and celebrities, such as Haitian-American hip-hop star Wyclef Jean.
But Champs de Mars camp residents 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 Nov. 28 has fueled 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.
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. “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, 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 the former U.S. leader had a solid understanding of what needed to be done for Haiti.
But O’Brien said most members of Haiti’s ruling elite families have done little to help.
“They’re making massive profits on the importation of goods, products, services, everything ... Profiteering at a major scale is going on here,” O’Brien added.
Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian-born actor who now lives in Los Angeles but was visiting his homeland, 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 Cynthia Osterman