In Haiti today, the church bells are ringing

The CBC's Paul Hunter on the signs of change and the lack thereof in Haiti today.
In Port-au-Prince, mourners gather at the main cathedral on Wed., Jan. 12, 2011, the one-year anniversary of the devastating quake that destroyed much of the country. (Reuters)

In a city full of churches, every one of them is packed today.  At every corner we've seen crowds of Haitians overflowing into the streets as people remember last year's devastating earthquake.

"It's to honour and remember the dead," we were told at each stop.

In our rounds, we have also yet to meet a single Haitian who didn't lose a family member or friend in the disaster.

Mourners also packed virtually every other place of worship in Haiti, like this partially destroyed church in a Port-au-Prince neighbourhood. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

Ceremonies will continue all day.

Where the dead went

The main cemetary in Port-au-Prince is also full of mourners today and countless above-ground graves have been adorned with fresh flowers and ribbons to mark the day of death, Jan. 12, 2010.

We met one family who gathered around a grave, placed a wreath and poured whisky on it.

Friends said they used to drink together, so the whisky was to help everyone pass this awful day.

Scattered around the grave were loose bones, skulls and rubble. 

The earthquake hit the cemetary hard as well.

Where the dead went (2)

Funny how the mass grave outside Port-au-Prince went unmarked effectively for 11 months, three weeks and six days.

Haitians walk past crucifixes at a mass grave site at Titanyen on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince on the anniversary of the earthquake that killed nearly 250,000 people in January 2010. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Then, when President René Préval and a press entourage went out for a commemorative ceremony there Tuesday,  suddenly thousands of black crosses were in place, poignantly honouring the dead.

'We're scared'

Ask anyone in this religious and superstitious city how they feel today and you get two main responses.

One is sadness for those who died.

the other is fearfulness that another quake will strike, maybe even on the exact anniversary. 

As one woman told us, "This day looks just like it did the morning of last January 12. I'm worried."

And Voodoo too

Catholic mourners weren't the only ones at the cemetary today.

Two Voodoo priests showed up chanting remembrances for victims of the earthquake.

They carried empty coconut shells and wore shiny beads, purple scarves, white cloaks with a black crosses on the front, and Nike running shoes.

How some survivors cope

A friend of ours who lives here in Port-au-Prince and has often helped us out at the Canadian Embassy recalled today that she lost 52 friends last January.

She happened to have her cellphone in her hand when we were talking and when she glanced at it she said, "You know, I still haven't erased any of them from my phone. It was a way of keeping them alive."

She sighed, stood there for a moment, then added, "Maybe today's the day for that."

Earlier reports

(From Monday, Jan. 10)

Every time I've travelled to Haiti — and this marks my fifth trip since the earthquake a year ago — I've sat next to a faith-based aid worker on the flight in. 

Haiti is a very Catholic country and in the past year the faithful have flocked to it with the goal of helping Haitians recover and, while they're at it, spreading the good word. 

It was no different this time. 

Next to me on the plane sat two women who, based on their accents, seemed from the Southern U.S. 

In an apparent effort to make sure they could communicate with those they might soon meet, the two spent the flight practising their French. 

One would say a phrase in English and then repeat it in French. Then the other would do the same. 

The CBC's Paul Hunter. His fifth tour of Haiti since the earthquake in January 2010.

So, over and over, they said back and forth in both languages: "God loves you, I love you." "God loves you, I love you."

They also talked (in English only) about how excited they were to get to see Haiti.


Upon arrival in Port-au-Prince, one is reminded quickly just how easy it is to pick up Creole, Haiti's other main language. 

It is essentially a twisted, phonetic version of French.

At the airport, a sign welcoming journalists for the anniversary referred to the country's minister of culture and communication. Or, as it is written in Creole — Ministe Kilti ak Kominikaysyon.

One word I've yet learned how to spell officially is the one most used here for the earthquake itself.

A man sells lottery tickets at the entrance to a tent city in the capital Port-au-Prince. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

It is also evidently phonetic, as it is based on the sound everyone heard at 4:53 p.m. last Jan. 12, an event now known simply as the "Ga-doomp."

The kiosk of unlikely dreams

For weeks following last year's quake you would see lineups for three things:  food and water; money wired from relatives elsewhere; and lottery tickets.

Lottery ticket booths, as everyone knows, seem to have a knack for popping up wherever there might be good business.

So where are they popping up now?  Outside the front gates of most tent cities, of course.

What insurance?

Arriving back this week we bumped into one of the owners of the once glorious Hotel Montana. 

More than a few Canadians died there when the earthquake struck and the Montana collapsed.

The place has now been cleared of most of the rubble and some reconstruction has begun. But it is going very slowly.

The owner, Garthe Cordoza, whose grandchild was killed in the quake, told me that, like so many others in Haiti, she has seen no insurance money whatsoever. 

Contrary to the law, her insurance company was evidently not fully reinsured against huge claims (like, for example, what might happen if an earthquake destroyed most of a city) and has run out of money with which to pay claimants.

It's no Banksy, but it makes the point

Want to know the mood of Haitians at any given moment? Check out the graffiti. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Rare is the wall in Port-au-Prince without graffiti and, likewise, rare is the graffiti in Port-au-Prince that isn't political.

Last winter, the general theme turned on aid for Haiti. During the recent election, the street art reverted to talking up (and down) any of the many candidates, albeit with plenty of trash talk for outgoing President René Préval.

Now, with frustrations mounting over the slow progress in reconstruction, the freshest spray paint in town reads: "Nou Bouke," which roughly translates as  "We're fed up" or "We're tired." 

You see it everywhere.

It's no Banksy, but it makes the point (2)

It may not qualify as graffiti, but there is another kind of message that, for the past almost 12 months, has gradually been spray-painted onto just about every building in the capital:  MTPTC.

Green for liveable. By someone's standards anyway. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

It stands for Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communications.

The ungainly acronym comes in three colours and is employed to say that a government building inspector has seen the structure and graded it either green (no need for repair), yellow (needs repair) or red (must be torn down).

Notwithstanding all the buildings that collapsed last January, there are now a LOT of buildings still largely intact with the red MTPTC of doom. 

In other words, the destruction of Port-au-Prince ain't over yet.

Don't forget the cholera

A man suffering from cholera in a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in Port-au-Prince in January 2011. (Paul Hunter/CBC) ((Paul Hunter/CBC))

For all the talk of the earthquake's anniversary and the frustration over the slow progress on reconstruction — a million people still homeless — you have to keep in mind that, as ever, there is even more to Haiti's problems. Such as cholera.

Though the outbreak has abated somewhat the past couple of weeks, we found hardly an empty bed on Sunday when we visited a clinic for cholera victims in Port-au-Prince run by Doctors Without Borders

An estimated 3,500 Haitians have died from cholera since the fall.

A place you do not want to be after dark

Haiti's tent cities are hopelessly overcrowded, noisy, filthy, awful places in the daytime.  Then at night, the crime (including rape) begins. 

We didn't stay long when we visited. But those who live here have no choice.

Tent city after dark. (Paul Hunter/CBC)