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Year 'was hell for us': Will Haiti be rebuilt?

Image: Haiti: Haitians bathe and wash clothes in a stream
Haitians bathe and wash clothes in a stream on Saturday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people is Wednesday.Mario Tama / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Haiti mourned more than 300,000 victims of its devastating 2010 earthquake on Wednesday in a somber one-year anniversary clouded by pessimism over slow reconstruction and political uncertainty.

Revising upwards previous death toll estimates from the January 12 quake of around 250,000, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said the recovery of additional bodies over the year put the total figure at "over 316,000 people killed".

He spoke at a news conference with former U.S. President and U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton after thousands of Haitians, many wearing white in mourning, attended poignant memorial services around the battered Caribbean country.

At one ceremony at the ruins of the National Cathedral in the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince conducted by the Papal envoy to Haiti, many local mourners stretched out their arms, calling aloud the names of dead loved ones and imploring God's help.

Other religious leaders, government officials and foreign dignitaries attended the service.

But in one sign of popular frustration over the sluggish pace of internationally backed recovery efforts, some 60 demonstrators at one point displayed banners in the city center criticizing U.N. peacekeepers and aid NGOs.

One banner condemned the "occupation" of Haiti, while others read "NGOs are wasting money".

But in general the mood was quietly somber in the ravaged coastal city, which is still filled with rubble from the massive quake that struck the poor Caribbean nation at 4:53 p.m. a year ago, killing around a quarter of a million people.

Despite an outpouring of solidarity for Haiti from around the world, billions of dollars of aid pledges and a huge ongoing humanitarian operation, ordinary Haitians say they are still waiting to see a positive impact in the Western Hemisphere's poorest state.

"If the reconstruction were serious, the mass would be happening inside the rebuilt church," Carla Fleuriven, a 19-year-old mother of three dressed in a white skirt and blouse, told Reuters outside the Cathedral.

On January 12 last year, she saw the Cathedral collapse, along with her home, and she now lives in a makeshift shelter, one of more than 800,000 homeless quake survivors who are still camped out in tents and tarpaulins 12 months after the disaster.

One of the world's poorest countries, Haiti was already in bad shape before the quake. But promises from the international community to "build Haiti back better" now ring hollow to many of Haiti's most vulnerable.

"We wake up every morning in the dust ... We need people who can understand the country, who can change the country," Fleuriven said.

Reconstruction work has barely begun, profiteering by Haiti's tiny and notoriously corrupt elite has reached epic proportions, and a national cholera epidemic has added to the misery of the quake-crippled country.

A political impasse since a disputed presidential election on November 28 has fueled further instability.

"God made the earthquake, but it's our leaders who are selling our misery," said Sephonese Louis, 58, one of the protesters in the Champs de Mars, Port-au-Prince's central plaza where thousands of families made homeless by the quake live in a sweltering tent city,

Solemn music
Haiti's normally voluble radio stations played solemn music and shops, businesses, banks, schools and government offices were closed in a day of national remembrance declared by President Rene Preval's government.

At the site of the country's main tax office which was leveled in the quake, Preval laid the first stone of what will be a memorial to the victims.

But Champs de Mars camp residents said the ceremonies and renewed pledges of aid and progress for Haiti from foreign officials were like something taking place in another world.

"I hear about aid on TV but us in Champs Mars, we've never seen it. We have no way to get out," said 55-year-old Ginelle Pierre Louis.

"The diplomats pass through in the air, in helicopters, but they never come through here on the ground," said Hyacinthe Mintha, 56, a resident of Champs Mars, which overlooks the heavily damaged presidential palace.

'Hell for us'
Mintha's daughter, Hyacinthe Benita, 39, lives in a metal and wood shack with a frayed tarp roof and a thin pallet as the only bed for herself and her four children.

"We are still here in misery," she said. "I hope this year brings serious change because 2010 was hell for us."

Clinton acknowledged disappointment with the commission's work. "Nobody's been more frustrated than I am that we haven't done more," he told reporters on Tuesday.

Denis O'Brien, a supporter of Clinton and chairman of the Irish-owned cell phone company Digicel that is Haiti's biggest foreign investor, told Reuters that most members of Haiti's ruling elite families have done little to help.

"They're making massive profits on the importation of goods, products, services, everything ... Profiteering at a major scale is going on here," O'Brien added.

Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian-born actor who now lives in Los Angeles but was visiting his homeland, said not much had changed since the disaster. "Everything went down on January 12th," he added. "It might stay down for years to come."

Clinton, in a separate interview with NBC News' Mara Schiavocampo, said he was not satisfied with the rate of progress, but remained optimistic that this would change.

"Everyday there's hope and there's frustration, but I'd say the hope still outweighs the frustration," he said. "I think there has been some real progress. We got 60 percent of the pledges for the first year distributed."

Schiavocampo, noting that some of the additions to the tent camps to make them more livable — such as concrete structures and latrines — also made them easier to rely on as permanent housing, asked Clinton if he expects them to still be in use in the next several years.

"If they're here in five years, I'll be really diasppointed," responded Clinton.