Haitians yearn for change after year in 'hell'

As Haitians mark the anniversary on Wednesday of the earthquake that flattened much of the capital Port-au-Prince, hopes that a better nation could rise from the rubble have given way to a crushing sense of bitterness and despair.

Reconstruction work has barely begun despite billions of dollars in pledged aid, profiteering by Haiti’s tiny and notoriously corrupt elite has reached epic proportions, and a national cholera epidemic has added to the misery of a country where the quake killed about 220 000 people and left more than a million homeless.

Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, was in bad shape before the quake. But promises from the international community to “build Haiti back better” now ring hollow to many of the country’s most vulnerable.

Banks, schools and government offices were ordered closed for the anniversary and a national day of mourning was to kick off with a service offered by the papal envoy to Haiti at the quake-shattered remains of the National Cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Former US President Bill Clinton, the special UN envoy for Haiti who heads its main disaster management body, was due to attend the service along with a host of officials including outgoing Haitian President Rene Preval.

But in Champs Mars, Port-au-Prince’s central plaza where thousands of families made homeless by the quake live in a sweltering tent city, residents said the official 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 are falling victim to the cholera that has already taken some 3 750 lives since mid-October.

A political impasse since a disputed presidential election on Nov. 28 has fueled further instability in the Caribbean country.

Aid on television, not in reality
“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 of the quake anniversary. “I hope this year brings serious change because 2010 was hell for us,” she added.

“The president’s right over there,” said Benita, gesturing toward the annex where Preval, who is deeply unpopular, works behind the presidential palace. “He’s never done anything for us, he’s never come to see us at all. They look at us like animals,” she said.

Clinton, who co-chairs the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission with Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, has faced pointed criticism for painfully slow progress in relief and rebuilding efforts so far. He acknowledged disappointment with the commission’s work in remarks to foreign reporters on Tuesday.

“Nobody’s been more frustrated than I am that we haven’t done more,” he said.

Elite profiteering
Denis O’Brien, a supporter of Clinton and chairperson of the Irish-owned cell phone company Digicel that is Haiti’s biggest foreign investor, told Reuters in an interview this week that the former US leader had a solid understanding of what needs to be done to get Haiti back on its feet.

But one of his big problems, according to O’Brien, is that most members of Haiti’s ruling class have done little to help, seeking only to profit on the back of their nation’s catastrophe.

“There’s very few of the elite families that are actually doing a lot for Haiti,” O’Brien said. “They’re making massive profits on the importation of goods, products, services, everything ... Profiteering at a major scale is going on here,” he said.

Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian-born actor and performer who now lives in Los Angeles but has visited his homeland frequently since the quake, said the ruling class had always benefited from chaos and mayhem in Haiti.

“The more destabilisation there is, unfortunately, the more money the elite makes,” he said.

“Not too much has changed,” said Louis, who said he rushed back to Haiti just days after the earthquake last year. “Everything went down on January 12,” he added. “It might stay down for years to come.”

Hapless Haiti: A timeline of misery
Haiti has been plagued by pestilence and natural disasters since a catastrophic earthquake a year ago killed more than 220 000 people. Here is a chronology of the main events:

  • January 12 2010: The 7.0-magnitude quake shakes Haiti at 4:53pm. Towns like Leogane and Jacmel are flattened along with large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince, where the presidential palace and key ministries collapse.
  • January 14 to January 15: After almost two days cut off from the outside world, the first international aid flights land at Port-au-Prince’s badly-damaged international airport. More than 15 000 corpses have already been collected.
  • January 16: US President Barack Obama calls predecessors George W Bush and Bill Clinton to the White House and charges them with gathering funds for the mammoth reconstruction task that lies ahead.
  • January 18: As fears over widespread looting and general lawlessness grow, the United States deploys up to 10 000 soldiers to maintain security and oversee the aid effort.
  • January 19: US Marines descend by helicopter to take control of the ruined presidential palace as the aid effort gathers pace and supplies begin to reach those most in need.
  • January 20: Elisabeth, a 23-day-old baby, is rescued from the ruins of a house in the devastated town of Jacmel in southern Haiti after spending seven days trapped with nothing to eat or drink.
  • January 30: Ten American missionaries are arrested attempting to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the neighboring Dominican Republic without the necessary paperwork.
  • February 27: Flooding kills at least 10 people in the southwest of the country, which was largely spared from the earthquake’s devastation.
  • March: A week of heavy rain causes widespread flooding in the tent cities that have sprung up around the capital to house an estimated 1,3-million people left homeless by the quake.
  • March 31: United Nations (UN) member states and international partners pledge $5,3-billion for the next 18 months to begin Haiti’s path to long-term recovery and almost $10-billion overall.
  • May 17: Capping a 108-day ordeal, a judge frees the head US missionary accused of trying to smuggle out the 33 Haitian children.
  • June 1: The US military ends major relief operations in Haiti.
  • October 18: Floods submerge much of Port-au-Prince, leaving 13 dead.
  • Mid-October: The country’s first cholera epidemic in more than a century erupts in a central river valley. By the end of the year more than 3 300 people will have died from the disease.
  • November 5: Hurricane Tomas leaves a trail of destruction in the west of the country, killing 21 people and worsening the cholera epidemic.
  • November 15 to November 17: Three people are killed in riots targeting UN peacekeepers blamed for bringing cholera into the country.
  • November 28: Haitians vote to choose a successor to President Rene Preval, who has served his maximum term and is widely unpopular due to slow pace of recovery since the quake.
  • December 7: Protests erupt when preliminary results reveal Preval’s handpicked protege has made it through to a run-off ahead of a popular opposition candidate—at least five people are killed.
  • December 9: The electoral commission agrees to recount tally sheets, but weeks later Haitians still await final results and no decision has been made on who will contest the indefinitely delayed run-off.
  • December 22: Authorities say at least 45 people accused of spreading cholera, several of them voodoo practitioners, have been killed by angry mobs since the epidemic began.
—Reuters, Sapa-AFP

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