Thursday, May 24, 2018
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A year later, homes still in ruins, Haitians mourn dead but find hope in own resilency

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The air was choked with memory Wednesday in this city where everyone lost a brother, a child, a cousin or a friend one year ago in the earthquake. Haitians marched down empty, rubble-lined streets singing hymns and climbed broken buildings to hang wreaths of flowers.

The landscape is much as the quake left it, thanks to a reconstruction effort that has yet to begin addressing the intense need. But the voices were filled with hope for having survived a year that seemed to get worse at every turn.

“We've had an earthquake, hurricane, cholera, but we are still here, and we are still together,” said Charlemagne Sintia, 19, who stood at the Silvio Cator soccer stadium in a school uniform.

The nation held a minute of silence at 4:53 p.m., the moment when the earthquake ripped the ground open exactly one year earlier. The government raised its death toll estimate Wednesday to more than 316,000, but it did not explain how it arrived at that number.

Thousands gathered around the city to be with loved ones and pray. They flocked to the ruins of the once-towering national cathedral, to a soccer stadium that served as an open-air morgue and later housed a tent camp, to parks, hillsides and the neighborhood centers.

Businesses were closed. Instead of traffic, streets were filled with people dressed in white, the color of prayer and mourning. They waved their hands, cheered and called out to God as they wound down roads beset by ruins. Astride the unrepaired buildings are camps where an estimated 1 million people still live, unable to afford new homes.

“God blessed me by taking only one of my cousins that day. Our house collapsed but we have health and life,” said Terez Benitot, a 56-year-old woman whose husband, a mason, can not find work amid a reconstruction all are waiting to begin.

The earthquake exploded in a previously undiscovered fault, just 8.1 miles below the surface and 15 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the capital and home to a third of the country's population.

Residents first heard a distant rumbling that reminded many of a passing truck. Then it blasted through everything like an atomic detonation, shattering walls, leveling hillside after hillside of fragile concrete homes and bringing many of Haiti's largest and most important buildings to the ground.

When it was over, a cloud of dust hung over the city, making it impossible to breathe. Those inside the destroyed cities and the even harder-hit towns to the west were trapped — if not literally under the rubble then in a bleeding, screaming island region cut off from the world as the sun quickly dipped below the horizon.

A year later, workers are still finding bodies in the rubble. About a million people remain homeless. Neighborhood-sized camps look like permanent shantytowns on the fields and plazas of the capital. A cholera epidemic that erupted outside the quake zone has killed more than 3,600 people, and an electoral crisis between President Rene Preval's ruling party and its rivals threatens to break an increasingly fragile political stability.

Less than 5 percent of the debris has been cleared. What's left would be enough to fill dump trucks parked bumper to bumper halfway around the world.

It took until Wednesday for Haiti's government to lay the cornerstone for a new National Tax Office. The earthquake shattered the old building, where many workers were killed in one of the blows to the public sector that helped paralyze the government following the earthquake.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony with Preval. Later Clinton joined Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive to update reporters on a reconstruction process they jointly oversee through the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission — a process many Haitians and observers think has failed.

More than $5.6 billion was pledged at a March 31 donors conference for a period of 18 months, but some $3.2 billion in public funding is still owed, according to Clinton's U.N. Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti.

Clinton and Bellerive said progress has been made — that half a million people have moved out of the camps that remain home to about 1 million. The aid group Oxfam disputes that figure, saying it's based on imprecise headcounts.

The former president said that the conditions for investment were improving and that the pace of reconstruction would soon accelerate.

“I don't blame people for being mad and frustrated. If I were still living in a camp like that after a year I would go crazy, I think,” Clinton said. “We are making progress and I understand why people don't feel it.”

Bellerive added, “We know that it is difficult for the population, but they understand that there has to be a coherent solution for their situation to improve.”

Among the key questions surrounding the commission is how long Bellerive will remain prime minister.

The constitution says Preval should leave office Feb. 7, though he will not have formally completed his full five-year term until May and he argues that he can remain in office until then.

An ongoing electoral crisis in which three candidates believe they should be in a runoff has delayed the second round. Bellerive admitted he does not know when he will leave office.

“Everything I do with my life, I do it with the respect of the law and the respect of the constitution. My plans are to give my resignation to the next elected president — if possible,” he said.

The anniversary, however, was not about politics to the marchers who crisscrossed the central Champ de Mars Plaza. Most were members of prayer groups giving thanks to God to sparing them from the earthquake.

“It is a grand day for us that we are able to give thanks to God that we are still here,” 54-year-old Acsonne Frederique said as a preacher exhorted him and others in the cheering crowd to pray.

“Others are here to repair our country. We are here to repair our souls.”

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