Haiti: One year on, the scars of the earthquake have scarcely begun to heal


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The Independent US

The fires are no longer burning, but precious little else has changed. These pictures, some taken this month, and others almost a year ago, lay bare just how slowly Haiti is recovering from the worst natural disaster in modern history.

At 4.53pm today, the Western world's poorest nation will pause to mark the anniversary of the moment when it was rocked by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, which killed 200,000-300,000 people and made roughly one in four of its citizens homeless.

A minute's silence will be observed, across Port-au-Prince, the capital city, where 800,000 victims are still living in makeshift tents, and where 3,651 more people have died in recent months, after cholera hit their dangerously-crowded encampments. Thousands of white balloons will be released into the sky.

In the city centre, large crowds are expected to celebrate Mass in the ruins of the Catholic cathedral, which became a symbol of the destruction when it was photographed last January. Like most of Haiti's demolished buildings, it has yet to be rebuilt. On the outskirts of town, Haiti's political leaders gathered yesterday to pay their respects at one of the mass graves where bodies of victims were taken in bulldozers and dumped in the weeks that followed the disaster.

It marked a rare cessation of hostilities. The country, which has suffered generations of political instability, was recently forced to delay a presidential run-off election scheduled for 16 January after supporters of the eliminated candidate Michel Martelly, a popular singer, alleged widespread fraud in the first round of voting, which took place in November.

Until their complaints can be investigated, Haiti remains in a state of legislative limbo. Officially, the country is under the command of René Préval, the widely-criticised incumbent President. In practice, it is controlled by the United Nations, whose troops have lately been forced to quell occasional riots.

On almost every street, long lines of locals can still be found waiting for basic supplies. Although aid agencies have been able to provide food, medicine and other bare essentials, they have made little impact on unemployment. The economy remains almost totally reliant on overseas aid.

There are occasional signs of progress. Rubble has been cleared from Port-au-Prince's pot-holed major roads, and demolished buildings are slowly being loaded into dumper trucks and removed. The number of people in camps has fallen, from a million and a half in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to roughly half that figure today.

But it will be some time before rebuilding can commence. Reconstruction efforts are complicated by the fact that many legal records, including most of the country's property deeds, were destroyed. One in five civil servants also perished.

Overseas governments and charities have meanwhile been criticised for spending only a small portion of the billions of dollars which were pledged to Haiti in the aftermath of the disaster. Huge sums of money, in some cases more than half of all last year's donations, are still sitting in bank accounts. They claim, in their defence, to be reluctant to throw money at a dysfunctional economy, where fraud is rife and financial oversight non-existent. But without bold action, many Haitians look at growing political turmoil and the threat of cholera, and fear that 2011 could be an even grimmer year than 2010.