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Sombre gatherings mark 5th anniversary of Haiti quake

Published:Tuesday | January 13, 2015 | 1:00 AM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP):

Sombre Haitians gathered early Monday to remember the devastating January 2010 earthquake that killed relatives and neighbours while shattering much of the overcrowded capital and surrounding area in one of the worst natural disasters of modern times.

Hundreds of women in white dresses and men in slacks and dress shirts attended a Catholic Mass just after dawn at a new church built alongside the ruined National Cathedral, the towering remnants of broken walls still dominating the impoverished Bel Air neighbourhood in downtown Port-au-Prince.

"This is the anniversary of the day I can never forget," Gladys Lambard, who lost her husband and sister in the earthquake, said as she walked into the church arm in arm with her 14-year-old daughter. "The sadness of that day marked me forever."

On the northern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where authorities quickly buried thousands of people in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, President Michel Martelly and the first lady placed white flowers before a large chunk of rubble set on a concrete pedestal. The burial area is being developed as a memorial for those who lost their lives.

CHANGED LIVES

"The life of the people changed in 35 seconds that day," Martelly said before a small audience of government officials, ambassadors and journalists. "But in the days that followed, solidarity came from everywhere."

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck just before 5 p.m. on January 12, 2010, collapsing concrete buildings by the tens of thousands in a densely populated city. The government later said more than 300,000 people were killed but the exact toll is unknown because there was no systematic effort to count bodies amid the chaos and destruction.

Following the massive earthquake, teams poured in from around the world to help Haitians rescue those trapped in rubble and treat vast numbers of people wounded in the disaster.

Carine Joiceus, a 24-year-old customs department worker who attended the memorial Mass in Bel Air, had to have one of her arms amputated near the shoulder after she was pinned by falling rubble at a university. She has since had two children and says she has learned to live with her disability.

"I remember just crying the first year after it happened," Joiceus said. "But since then, I'm moving ahead with my life and thinking of the future. "

UNEVEN RECOVERY

For the country as a whole, the recovery has been uneven.

The United Nations says Haiti has received more than 80 per cent of about US$12.45 billion pledged by more than 50 countries and multilateral agencies since the disaster, a combination of humanitarian assistance, recovery aid and disaster relief. Parts of the capital are awash in new construction and the number of people in dismal tent camps has dropped from around 1.5 million after the quake to around 80,000.

But Haiti also remains a desperately poor country facing many of the same challenges as before the earthquake. The World Bank says more than six million out of roughly 10.4 million inhabitants live under the national poverty line of US$2.44 per day. Meanwhile, a political standoff between Martelly and Parliament that has delayed legislative elections threatens to undermine the country's political stability.

Martelly contrasted the solidarity Haitians displayed in the immediate aftermath of the quake with the messy political situation it is enduring now. Opposition protesters have repeatedly clashed with riot police in downtown Port-au-Prince as they press for the president's departure.

"Enough is enough," Martelly said during his speech, addressing the opposition groups orchestrating the street protests. "Give the country a chance, in the name of the all the victims who died five years ago."