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Haiti mourns its dead, prays for future

world Updated: Jan 13, 2011 10:33 IST

AFP
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With sorrow in their hearts and fearful of an uncertain future, Haitians on Wednesday held ceremonies and services to mark the moment a year ago when the earth convulsed and shattered their nation.

"It's a day of reflection and of prayer," said Roger Jean, 64, who lost his wife and three children when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake tore through the most densely populated corner of the impoverished Caribbean nation.

More than 220,000 people were killed and 1.3 million left homeless when at 4:53pm (2153 GMT) on January 12, 2010 the earth heaved for a few terrifying seconds, collapsing homes and businesses, churches and schools -- leaving hellish, nightmarish scenes of devastation and suffering.

"I am addressing a special prayer for Haiti to God: a prayer for Haiti to change, that Haiti live again," Jean said.

Thousands of people gathered outside the ruins of the city's cathedral for a solemn Catholic Mass, their hymns floating across the rubble.

The women wore perfect white dresses, the men crisp shirts, as incense wafted over the crowds, amid a soft chorus of "Hallelujah."

The laughter and smiling so common when Haitians gather gave way to grim faces and shudders as people restrained tears. One woman, suddenly overcome, began to shriek repeatedly, before relatives sat her down.

This small nation of about 10 million people has experienced decades of misery, bloodshed and political upheaval. But the earthquake has dealt it a crushing blow and a year later little has been rebuilt.

"In one of the poorest countries in the world... we made a major step backwards," Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told a press conference, as Haiti somberly marked its grim anniversary.

From early morning, national television replayed footage of the quake's aftermath, the shocking images of mangled corpses and screaming survivors triggering painful memories.

Former US president Bill Clinton, one of the main figures coordinating a massive international aid effort, and President Rene Preval attended a ceremony to lay the first stone in a memorial park.

"This is going to be a place to honor the victims. We must not forget this," Preval said, as dozens of white balloons were released, swept up within seconds into the sunny skies overhead.

"We must keep united for the reconstruction of Haiti."

But at a press conference later Clinton and Bellerive would not be drawn on when they thought the tent camps still housing hundreds of thousands of homeless would finally be emptied.

"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, adding that half a million people had already been moved out of the camps.

The quake left no Haitian untouched.

However there was little in the way Wednesday of organized national ceremonies, possibly reflecting the broader inability of the government to act over the last year.

A minute of silence called for at 4:53pm -- the exact moment the quake struck last year -- was only partially observed.

In the center of Port-au-Prince, by the collapsed ruins of the presidential palace, part of the crowd at a memorial concert bowed their heads when asked from the stage to fall silent.

But many others further from the stage -- who may not have heard the request -- kept talking.

In streets away from the center and in one of the tent camps housing the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by the quake, no one could be seen observing the minute of silence.

Very few Haitians have watches and many are not generally aware of the precise time.

The anniversary also finds Haiti gripped by political uncertainty over the holding of a runoff round in elections to replace Preval.

The government is set to receive on Thursday a report from international monitors with non-binding, but heavyweight recommendations on how to move ahead after first-round results sparked deadly riots.

According to a leaked draft of the report, the OAS is calling on Preval's favored successor Jude Celestin to drop out because of fraud.

The switch, if confirmed, would be a blow to Preval, who is due to leave power and had been hoping to see his ally take over.