LÉOGANE, Haiti — They prayed underneath tarps held together with plastic pipes, sat on cinder blocks behind a destroyed Cathedral while giving praise to God and crowded the entrance of quake-damaged buildings as they broke into song.
Four years after a cataclysmic 7.0 earthquake left more than 300,000 dead, an equal number injured and 1.5 million homeless, Haiti and Haitians on Sunday remembered their dead — and were called upon to celebrate life.
“We are here,” Pastor Guy Fontaine said to a packed congregation inside the Christian Church of Leogane, where the quake’s epicenter passed on Jan. 12, 2010, toppling churches and private homes, and splitting open roads in this seaside town south of the capital.
Fontaine’s sentiment was echoed across Haiti, where pastors, priests and Voudouists joined Haitian President Michel Martelly, members of his government and the foreign diplomatic corps near the grounds of the razed presidential palace in Port-au-Prince for a low-key ceremony to commemorate the day. This was the second consecutive year that Haiti had opted for an understated ceremony. Martelly laid a wreath earlier in the morning at the mountaintop site on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where many were buried in mass graves, and later white balloons were released after a siren sounded for 35 seconds — the amount of time the quake lasted.
Martelly, in an address that was broadcast over state television, called on Haitians to come together to reconstruct their country in much the same way they put their hands together in the hours and days immediately after the quake to dig each other out from underneath the rubble.
“We owe this to the victims of Jan. 12,” said Martelly, who was dressed in white. “Let’s choose to not just exist, but to live, to celebrate life.”
As proof that Haiti matters, Martelly delivered some good news to the crowd: Pope Francis on Sunday named the first Haitian Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Monsignor Chibly Langlois, Bishop of Les Cayes and President of the Bishops Conference of Haiti, was appointed as one of 19 new cardinals, in addition to Monsignor Kelvin Edward Felix, retired bishop of Castries, St. Lucia.
“[It’s] a nice day for the Caribbean,” the Pope’s representative in Haiti, Monsignor Benedito Azua, told the Miami Herald.
Azua, who was at the commemoration ceremony but did not address the crowd, said “some visible and palpable progress has been made, not only in Port-au-Prince but also in some areas in the provinces.”
But like many Haitians and international donors, he was worried, he said, about the fragility as a sense of normalcy begins to return to the poverty-stricken nation.
“The improvements so far attained are still very fragile and have not yet reached a ‘critical mass’ for the country to be able to weather another serious natural disaster or socio-political chaos,” he said. “Haiti still needs international aid, but more so it needs healthy investments to create jobs and generate wealth.”
Humanitarian and development experts agree. While roads have been rebuilt, homes repaired and tent encampments are disappearing — the number of quake homeless has dropped from 1.5 million to 146,573, according to the latest figures from the International Organization of Migration — many Haitians are hard-pressed to feel the changes in their daily lives.
Haiti, experts say, is dealing with pre-quake challenges that can only be addressed by investments in sustainable long-term development.
“It’s not just a question of repairing homes,” said Sophie de Caen, senior country director for the United Nations Development Program. “In a country like Haiti, you have to look at employment and the environment.”
That means continuing to assess high-risk areas in the earthquake-prone nation, and ensuring that people build to standard to avoid the catastrophe of four years ago. The burden doesn’t just fall to Haitian leaders, de Caen said, but also to the international community, which has failed to live up to its post-quake promise of $14 billions in over 10 years.
That wasn’t lost on Haitians Sunday, as they remembered those life-changing 35 seconds and lamented the slow pace of reconstruction.
“When you consider all of the [nongovernmental organizations] that passed through Léogâne, and how Léogâne was destroyed, this should have been its moment to rise,” said Jean-Claude Esperance, as he left the local Episcopal Church. “But the people, they are miserable. They are hungry.”