PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — President Michel Martelly urged Haitians to recall the tens of thousands of people who lost their lives in a devastating earthquake three years ago, marking the disaster’s anniversary Saturday with a simple ceremony.
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton joined Martelly later in the day for a similarly quiet wreath-laying commemoration.
“Haitian people, hand in hand, we remember what has gone,” Martelly said in the morning as a gigantic Haitian flag flew at half-staff before him on the front lawn of the former National Palace, a pile of tangled steel reinforcement bars nearby. “Hand in hand, we’re remembering, we’re remembering Jan. 12.”
Martelly thanked other countries and international organizations for their help since the Jan. 12, 2010, disaster.
Clad in black, several dozen senior government officials gathered where the opulent white palace stood before it collapsed in the temblor and was later demolished. Foreign diplomats and Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova, earlier named by Martelly as one of Haiti’s goodwill ambassadors, were also there.
In the speech, Martelly announced a government contest seeking designs for a monument to honor those who died in the quake. He also said the government had just released a new construction code aimed at ensuring new buildings are seismically resistant in hopes of preventing the same kind of catastrophic damage in any future earthquake.
In the late morning, Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, joined Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe in placing a wreath at a mass burial site north of the capital of Port-au-Prince. None of the three spoke at the event.
Clinton expressed hope about Haiti’s future in brief comments to reporters after the ceremony.
“I think that you will see, particularly in the economic sphere, a lot more in the coming year, where Haiti is projected to have the highest growth rate in the Caribbean,” he said. “Well, we hope to speed up some of the infrastructure. We have to repair the agriculture and … build a lot more houses. We’ve got to get those people out of those tents.”
Clinton, Martelly and Lamothe met privately in the afternoon.
Haiti’s previous presidential administration said 316,000 people were killed but no one really knows how many died. The disaster displaced more than a million others.
Most of the rubble created by the quake has since been carted away but more than 350,000 people still live in grim displacement camps.
Many people had hoped the reconstruction effort would have made more headway by now, but progress has been stymied by political paralysis, the scale of devastation and a trickle of aid.
Jan. 12 was observed as a national holiday the last two years to remember the quake. This year, the government said the day would no longer be a holiday but called for the Haitian flag to be flown at half-staff and for nightclubs and “similar establishments” to close.
The anniversary this year has been used by Haiti observers to criticize the reconstruction process and by foreign aid groups to promote their work and raise money. The European Union announced Saturday it was giving Haiti 30.5 million euros for displaced people still living in camps, as well as victims of a subsequent cholera epidemic and those affected by Hurricane Sandy late last year.
The Clinton Foundation also announced that it was contributing about 40 solar-powered streetlights to a housing community north of Port-au-Prince for deaf families who were relocated there.
But for some Haitians, it was just another day.
“We can’t remain focused on January 12th,” said Asaie St. Louis, a 56-year-old teacher and devout church-goer, Bible in hand. “It’s passed already.”
(AP PHOTO: Relatives of those who died in the 2010 earthquake walk in single file to place a cross on a hilltop to remember those who died in the devastating earthquake.)