Kicking off two days of remembrance of the January 12 disaster, President Rene Preval laid a wreath on a dusty hill marked with black crosses just north of the capital Port-au-Prince where mass graves contain crushed and mutilated bodies of tens of thousands of hastily buried quake dead.
“We remember you, we will never forget you,” Preval said, accompanied by his wife Elisabeth and members of his cabinet.
Between 150,000 and 200,000 victims are believed to be buried at the St. Christophe burial site overlooking the blue Caribbean sea. Lines of hundreds of black-painted wooden crosses covered the site, where two banners proclaimed in Haitian Creole: “January 12, we will never forget.”
A larger black cross overlooks the location.
The anniversary of a disaster that many experts call the biggest urban catastrophe in modern history is going ahead amid a barrage of criticism over Haiti’s slow recovery and reconstruction, despite billions of dollars of international donations and aid pledges.
U.S. President Barack Obama, while hailing the leading U.S. role in “one of the largest humanitarian efforts ever attempted”, acknowledged that helping the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation to recover would take years if not decades.
“Still, too much rubble continues to clog the streets, too many people are still living in tents, and for so many Haitians progress has not come fast enough,” Obama said in a statement marking the anniversary of the quake, which killed more than 100 Americans, among other foreigners.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for renewed international efforts to help Haiti “build back anew”.
More than 800,000 survivors are camped out under tents and tarpaulins in the rubble-jammed Haitian capital, and delays in debris-clearing and resettlement have prompted questions about the effectiveness of the huge aid operation.
“Look, nobody’s been more frustrated than I am that we haven’t done more,” said former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to Haiti who co-chairs an Interim Haiti Recovery Commission with outgoing Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
“But I’m encouraged if you look at how much faster it’s been going in the last four months,” Clinton told reporters at a debris-clearing site in Port-au-Prince.
‘LOT OF WORK GOING ON’
Clinton and Bellerive attended the signing of a framework investment agreement for the creation of an industrial park in northern Haiti, where leading South Korean garment manufacturer Sae-A plans to create 20,000 jobs and become the largest private sector employer in the country.
“This will help Haiti overcome dependence on aid … we need jobs,” Bellerive told reporters. Sae-A officials said the start-up investment by the company would be $78 million (£49.9 million).
In a separate news conference, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, Nigel Fisher, disputed suggestions that the international aid operation was not having an impact.
“There is a lot of work going on,” he said, although he admitted there were sometimes problems coordinating relief work with thousands of foreign aid organizations in the country.
Haiti is also grappling with a cholera epidemic that broke out months after the quake and has killed over 3,750 people.
Memorial services are planned for Wednesday to mark the magnitude 7.0 quake, which struck at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010. It only lasted 10 to 20 seconds but toppled buildings like cards, killing some quarter of a million people, injuring more than 300,000 and making more than 1.5 million homeless.
Clinton said he hoped faster progress could be made this year with resettling tens of thousands of homeless survivors.
“Housing is always the thing people want most, next to a job, and always the thing that takes the longest,” he said.
Clinton added his voice to appeals for a solution to the dispute triggered by chaotic presidential and legislative elections held in Haiti on November 28. Street riots and fraud allegations greeted the December 7 preliminary results.
At the request of outgoing President Preval, Organisation of American States experts have been verifying the contested preliminary results and their report was leaked to a U.S. media organisation on Monday.
Citing vote tally irregularities, it recommends that a government-backed presidential candidate be eliminated from a run-off, a recommendation that seems likely to roil the edgy political climate during the quake anniversary.
Clinton, who an aide said had not seen the OAS team report, told reporters: “I supported the OAS coming in … we just need to proceed and resolve this.”
The electoral tension and uncertainty have stoked fears that political instability could delay the handover of billions of dollars of urgently needed reconstruction funds. Reuters