In Haiti, earthquake survivors pray, lament 'a day that nobody can forget' on disaster's anniversary

Jan. 12, 2011, marks the first anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:00 AM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Haitians spent the anniversary of the worst natural disaster in their country's history remembering the dead and thanking God or luck or strong cement for saving their own lives.

At 4:53 p.m. - the moment the earthquake struck last year - in the hard-hit Fort National neighborhood, life went on. Kids flew kites. A one-armed beggar asked for a dollar. Mothers stood outside their tin-can houses. Someone shouted in lament and praise, "Oh Jesus!" On a bulletin board, people pinned pictures of their lost friends.

With shops closed and traffic light, Haitians streamed down the streets in spontaneous processions, women wearing white, holding their children's hands, men in crisp shirts and ties, the clothes they would wear to church or a funeral.

They went to the ruins of the National Cathedral, to pray the rosary at its front steps. The building is now a gutted, roofless shell. Some worshipers began to weep and shout out as they approached.

At Saint Antoine de Padoue, they held Mass in an alley. "A day nobody can forget, no matter how young, even my son," said Carline Amazan, who held a young boy's hand and recalled how people ran naked through streets.

Many Haitians thought at the time that the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 was the coming of the apocalypse.

"The date of January 12 is a dark, dark day - when I say dark I mean complete darkness," said Damas Monerise, who teaches literature to high school students and whose father died trying to get out of the house.

"He wasn't strong. His legs were weak. He couldn't move fast enough," said Monerise, whose eyes filled with tears at the memory.

There were reports of a few tires burning, and groups of students marched down the streets, chanting and demanding a faster recovery. But mostly, the city was peaceful.

On the site where the government's tax ministry building collapsed a year ago, President Rene Preval laid a stone in concrete to commemorate the start of construction of the January 12, 2010, Memorial Park.

Workers released white balloons as performers sang lyrics that spoke to their sadness at not being able to properly bury their dead. "Will you forgive us?" they sang.

Preval has been roundly criticized as an ineffectual leader in the earthquake's aftermath. Haitians are still awaiting the results of the Nov. 28 presidential election, and the uncertainty has delayed projects and donor contributions to Haiti's recovery.

"We have paid a very high price for instability in the past," Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said in an interview.

He said a report from the Organization of American States on the legitimacy of the election would be delievered to his desk Thursday. According to a leaked copy, the ruling party's candidate should be out of the running, leaving one of two opposition candidates as Haiti's next president.

Bellerive, who co-chairs the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission with former president Bill Clinton, said that only about 15 percent of the $5.3 billion committed in March to Haiti's recovery in 2010 and 2011 has been dispersed.

Clinton said "that is a pretty good number" for a year in which the world economic slowdown was barely lifting.

"I don't blame people for being mad," Clinton said. "I understand why people don't feel" that progress is being made.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company