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Haitians mark poignant six-month quake anniversary

Haitians marked a sad anniversary on Monday, mourning the hundreds of thousands killed six months ago in a massive earthquake and eyeing a precarious future amid the slow trickle of aid.

world Updated: Jul 13, 2010 02:09 IST

Haitians marked a sad anniversary on Monday, mourning the hundreds of thousands killed six months ago in a massive earthquake and eyeing a precarious future amid the slow trickle of aid.

In the ruins of the presidential palace toppled by the January 12 quake which measured 7.0 in magnitude, international supporters joined Haitian President Rene Preval and other leaders in a poignant remembrance ceremony.

Former US president Bill Clinton, who is heading up UN efforts to help rebuild the impoverished Caribbean nation, was among the mourners along with US actor Sean Penn who has spent months in the country trying to help. "We came down with the idea of spending about two weeks and trying to help out," Penn told CBS Monday.

"And there's something that takes over and it's really an obligation because you see the strength of the people who have never experienced comfort." Some 250,000 people were killed and 1.5 million left homeless when the earth briefly convulsed on January 12, unleashing a trail of destruction on the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Tent cities have sprung up around the ruined capital of what was already the poorest country in the Americas, with little sign that those left homeless and destitute will move into more permanent housing any time soon.

Penn blamed the media for rapidly losing interest in the situation on the ground, and moving the international spotlight elsewhere.

"So many questions and criticisms could have been answered," Penn said. "People could understand what's going on here; they could understand the heart and courage of the Haitian people and the necessity for the coordination efforts that are still not happening, in anything close to an effective way."

Three months after an international conference in New York where world powers pledged more than 10 billion dollars over five years, only a fraction of the promised aid has materialized.

The US Center for Strategic and International Studies calculated Monday that just two percent or about 50 million dollars had actually arrived.

Private donations raised some 1.6 billion dollars for non-governmental organizations, but only 20 to 40 per cent of the funds they have received have been disbursed, the CSIS said. "In spite of this outpouring of generosity, the challenge of aid delivery remains a central issue," it wrote.

"The very same obstacles that the international and NGO communities faced prior to the earthquake -- lack of transparency, lack of a strong governmental partner and lack of aid coordination -- have not gone away."

But Interior Minister Paul-Antoine Bien-aime used Monday's remembrance ceremony to thank the international community for its help.

"The situation would have been much worse without the assistance from the international community, the non-governmental organizations and foreigners, that has allowed the government to confront the worst catastrophe known to humanity," Bien-aime said. Haitians are growing impatient at the slow trickle of aid and the crawling pace of reconstruction, with rubble still strewn around the city's streets.

According to the United Nations office in Haiti, nearly 4,000 homes of 18 square meters (194 square feet) each have been built in a project that anticipates building some 10,000 houses.

But the UN humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, Nigel Fischer, has acknowledged there are "many challenges" in getting the nation back on its feet.

He also warned that 130 tent cities have been identified as at risk from the current hurricane season which could further worsen conditions for the most vulnerable -- including thousands of orphaned children.

"Children in Haiti are among those having the hardest time recovering from the earthquake," Save the Children's director of emergencies Gareth Owen said in a statement last week.

"Many are still trying to cope with the grief of losing loved ones, their homes, their toys -- everything that gave them their sense of identity. It's hard for an adult to cope, let alone a child."

The massive aid effort is now moving from emergency assistance into the long-term recovery stage for the UN World Food Program (WFP), which has launched temporary job initiatives employing some 35,000 women and men.

The number of employed workers under the program, which typically pays them with a mixture of food and cash, is expected to reach 140,000 before the end of the year.

First Published: Jul 12, 2010 23:23 IST