Gemma Handy

Haiti – 12 Months On

TODAY there's singing in Port-au-Prince. Music is blaring from inside a ramshackle Delmas church, its congregation clapping and swaying to a jubilant beat.

It's a buoyant scene which the casual onlooker may feel belies the backdrop outside.

Set in the heart of one of the ruined capital city's largest tent cities, it's one of numerous ceremonies taking place to commemorate the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake.

Twelve months to the day, Haitians are uniting to mark the disaster which struck at 16.53 on January 12 2010, claiming 230,000 lives and rendering over a million more homeless.

Across the city, the piles of rubble may have shrunk but there's little sign of the ubiquitous camps abating just yet.

Throw in election unrest and a cholera epidemic and one can only marvel at the tremendous spirit of these most resilient people.

A handful of camps has been cleared completely but this particular one has bloated by 4,000 to an estimated 20,000 inhabitants.

A year after it was hastily constructed, all shacks have been fitted with new tarp roofs to keep the rain out, taps for running water have been installed and gravel laid on the ground to prevent flooding.

Filthy shoeless kids, with beams as big as Baltimore, flock to greet us. Their tiny hands grasp handmade kites created from plastic shopping bags. A gaggle of bigger kids kick a football around a terrace overlooking the sprawling shanty town.

The place is undoubtedly cleaner and more orderly than my last visit in August. It's as if the initial shock has passed and people are becoming resigned to their fate.

The danger is, of course, the more infrastructure and facilities that are put in place, the more interminable their plight.

As we dodge washing lines and weave our way around groups of residents playing cards, we come across one man with his face covered in flour, a wide grin etched across his cheeks.

In broken English he explains it was a joke on the part of his opponents to whom he lost one particularly boisterous game of dominoes.

Food may be scarce but laughs are plenty.

At the junction of two muddy alleys, a hut bedecked with film posters and handmade signs is bathed in a ray of sunlight.

Inside this makeshift 'cinema' sits a small TV set, faced by rows of crafted wooden benches, erected in ascending order in imitation of a theatre. At one side sits a plastic box full of salvaged DVDs.

The flour-faced man whose name, he tells us, is Alfred Luckner, says the venue was built by his friend to lift the spirits of the camp's innumerable inhabitants.


"Last year, he got the idea to let people have a little fun," he imparts. "People come here every day to take the stress out."

Tonight 'The Passion of the Christ' will be screened before eager cinema-goers who will gain entry for the price of five Haitian gourdes – US15c.

One can't help but wonder what Jesus himself might think of this poignant little scene.

I am told the cinema's name is 'Femszi' – local slang meaning 'to make people happy'. Here, strength comes in numbers.

Questioned about the recent general election, Alfred's face is suddenly serious. Politics, it appears, is of little consequence to the homeless.

"The Government don't come to us, they say nothing to us," he says.

"We just pray to God, we don't expect from nobody, we can't do nothing. We just accept the new Government – if we fight, we die."

Whether Jean-Claude Duvalier's shock return to power will be the band-aid Haiti badly needs remains to be seen.

If the slogans which adorn numerous collapsed walls are to be believed, his comeback will be largely a welcomed one.

slogans daubed across Port-au-Prince include a touching plea to potential benefactors. 'We need help, food, medicine, water,' it reads.

A mile away, a token of the help which did arrive is evident in the recently completed Iron Market, or 'Marche en Fer'.

historic building with its iconic clock tower is the first public building to be totally restored since the quake.

Its $12m redevelopment was personally funded by Digicel chairman Denis O'Brien. Construction alone provided jobs for a mammoth 750 people. Within its lofty wrought iron surrounds, up to 1,000 sellers will be free to sell their wares, ranging from locally grown fruit and veg to handmade arts and crafts.

Former Provo resident Bill Minto presided over the last few months of the scheme as construction manager. His passion for the venture is immediately tangible as he describes it as "like watching a baby grow".

Years ago the Iron Market was a huge draw for the cruise passengers who used to flock to this fallen city. Behind the new majestic structure, it is currently functioning under sweltering tarpaulin, its vendors counting down the days until it reopens.

A short walk away, an audience of tiny kids is seated in front of a man with a megaphone who entreats God for his mercy.

A brass band with sombre faces and black arm bands marches by, a doleful tune accompanying the musicians' rueful stride.

And at 16.53, as the sun begins to set behind the decimated presidential palace, as shattered today as on that fateful afternoon, crowds line the street outside.

flags fly proudly atop the adjacent shanty houses as throngs of journalists jostle for position.

A group of people dressed in white, the colour of mourning, gather together, their heads bowed in prayer to commemorate the worst natural disaster in modern history.

And then, amid the flurry, the sound of a lone trumpet cuts through the air like a knife. Its resonance is at once mournful and proud, anguished and sanguine.

One lone voice repeats the word 'Hallelujah'. Voices join in unison to form a heart wrenching ballad, an ode to tragedy and despair, pride and patriotism, courage and loved ones lost.

They may be gone but they'll never be forgotten, as Haiti comes together in solidarity, remembering the past with sorrow, looking to the future with hope.