PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – President Michel Martelly used his nation's most solemn anniversary to issue an appeal for calm and unity, asking Haitians to remember the victims of the country's devastating earthquake five years ago Monday by putting Haiti first.
"Haiti needs peace," he said, attending an official ceremony at the site of the mass graves near Titanyen where many of the more than 300,000 victims are buried.
During the solemn commemoration of the Jan. 12, 2010, disaster, which was more low key than in previous years, Martelly reminded Haitians that in the first hours and days after the unimaginable tragedy, they came together to help each other. Sometimes using nothing but their bare hands, Haitians dug through the rubble of collapsed schools and homes to "help a neighbor, a colleague, someone whom we had never met before."
"On this January 12, … there was no deputy, there was no 'my man,' there was no white, there was no black," he said. "All Haitians were victims, and all Haitians who were helping one another without discrimination.
"Every life that was saved, was a victory," he said, "every child who came out from underneath the rubble — joy."
'Eternally grateful for their sacrifices'
In addition to those who died, there were 300,000 injured and 1.5 million left homeless. The number of earthquake dead has long been debated and Monday was no exception. Every speaker had a figure different from the 316,000 that former Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who was in office at the time, announced.
Among those dead was the top brass of the U.N. Peacekeeping Mission, which was meeting when the earthquake hit at 4:53 p.m.
Last week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon unveiled a memorial for all of the U.N.'s personnel who died that day. "We remain eternally grateful for their sacrifices," Ban said in a message to Haiti and the Haitian people on the anniversary. "In our sorrow, there is the promise of hope."
Ban, who visited Haiti last year, appealed to the international community to continue its support to Haiti, which he called "invaluable."
Former President and U.N. Special Envoy Bill Clinton also issued a similar plea, saying, "We should be thankful for the progress made and strong in our commitment to support Haitians as they continue their march toward a more prosperous future.
"The efforts of the Haitian people and their partners in the international community are yielding promising results, including four consecutive years of positive GDP growth, rising apparel and agricultural exports, and increasing tourist numbers," he said. "But there is still much more to be done to widen the circle of opportunity and create the capacity for long-term development that relies less on foreign aid and more on the talent, enterprise, and resilience of the Haitian people."
Clinton did not attend the commemoration, unlike previous years. He was remembered, nevertheless. During a protest Sunday, anti-government demonstrators passed around copies of a photo of Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying they aren't welcomed in Haiti. The anger stems from support for Martelly, whom some are asking to resign, and dissatisfaction with the slow progress, which Clinton oversaw for 18 months as co-chair of the Interim Haitian Recovery Commission, which his wife pushed as secretary of state.
The commission's job was to help the international community better coordinate more than $12 billion in promised aid, and had promised to help Haiti "build back better" after the tragedy. While there has been progress over the last four years, it has been slow and many of the promises, such as jobs and the construction of tens of thousands of homes, have not been realized.
Martelly reminded Haitians that it wasn't just the earthquake, which has no name in Creole and has become known as "goudougoudou," that killed the victims, but the lack of development in the country that led to the poorly constructed homes, businesses and government buildings that came crashing down during the 35 seconds.
But while the earthquake shook Haiti and threw Haitians down, "it didn't keep us on the ground," Martelly said. "We stood up stronger."
'This is a sad day, a day of mourning'
As Martelly spoke, members of the diplomatic corps looked on. Most were dressed in black or white, traditional mourning colors in Haiti. The government ministers wore long-sleeve white shirts, with blue trimmings that are known as Pepe Bayard, a Haitian version of the Cuban Guayabera shirt.
The event began with a children's choir and brief speeches by members of the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Vodou faiths. Haiti's Culture Ministry has started working to turn the mass grave site into a memorial.
"This is a sad day, a day of mourning, a day where a lot of people remember what happened," Martelly said in his speech that touched on the reality of the event, and that of the day — the ongoing political crisis. Turning to his supporters and detractors, he appealed for calm, telling Haitians that it's not in "burning tires on the roads, demanding change," that Haiti will change.
"The country has enough problems already," he said. "This is too much. Let's give the country a chance in the name of all these victims."
Erol Josue, a member of the Vodou religion and culture, told Haitians that the fifth anniversary was a day for all to reflect on the country, and its history. Recalling how Vodou was blamed for the earthquake because it was a Vodou ceremony that set in motion the events of the Haitian Revolution, Josue said Haitians have to respect one another. "Give Haiti a chance, put side all of your personal problems," he said. "We lost a lot of people, even people who came to visit us. We lost hope."