Tears and prayers as Asia mourns tsunami dead 10 years on

Survivors from all the world recall horror of 10 years ago.
A woman prays at a mass grave of tsunami victims during in Siron, Aceh Besar, Indonesia, on December 26, 2014. Binsar Bakkara / AP Photo
A woman prays at a mass grave of tsunami victims during in Siron, Aceh Besar, Indonesia, on December 26, 2014. Binsar Bakkara / AP Photo

KHAO LAK, Thailand // Tearful mourners lit candles yesterday to remember the almost 230,000 people who died a decade ago when tsunami waves devastated coastal areas along the Indian Ocean, in one of the worst natural disasters in human history.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia’s western tip generated a series of massive waves that pummelled the coastlines of 14 countries as far apart as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Somalia.

Among the victims were thousands of foreign tourists enjoying Christmas on the region’s sun-kissed beaches, carrying the tragedy of an unprecedented natural disaster into homes around the globe.

In southern Thailand, where half of the 5,400 dead were holidaymakers, people recounted stories of horror and miraculous survival as the churning waters, laden with the debris of eviscerated bungalows, cars and boats, swept in without warning, obliterating resorts and villages.

A minute’s silence in the resort of Khao Lak, much of which was washed away by the towering waves, was broken by a lone trumpeter, as mourners each lit a single white candle, some sobbing as they illuminated the darkness.

Among them was a Swiss national, Katia Paulo, who lost her boyfriend on a nearby beach.

“I had my back to the ocean. My boyfriend called me. The only thing I remember is his face. I knew I had to run away, then the wave caught me,” the 45-year-old said. “I was pushed under water many times and thought it was the end.”

She called for help, only to realise the people nearby were already dead.

“I managed to hold on to a tree branch,” she said. As the waves retreated, she was six metres off the ground.

Nearby, 40-year-old Somjai Somboon was grieving for her two sons, who were ripped from their house when the waves cut into their fishing village of Ban Nam Khem.

“I remember them every day,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

“I will always miss my sons.”

Among the international commemorations, in Sweden, which lost 543 citizens to the waves, the royal family and relatives of the victims attended a memorial service in Uppsala Cathedral yesterday afternoon.

There was no warning of the impending tsunami, giving little time for evacuation, despite the hours-long gaps between the waves striking different continents.

In 2011 a pan-ocean tsunami warning system was established, made up of a network of sea gauges, buoys and seismic monitors, while individual countries have invested heavily in disaster preparedness.

But experts have cautioned against the perils of “disaster amnesia” creeping into communities vulnerable to natural disasters.

The scale of the devastation in 2004 meant nations initially struggled to mobilise a relief effort, leaving bloated bodies to pile up under the tropical sun or in makeshift morgues.

The world poured money and expertise into the relief and reconstruction, with more than US$13.5 billion (Dh49.5bn) collected in the months after the disaster.

Almost $7 billion in aid went into rebuilding more than 140,000 houses across Indonesia’s Aceh province, where most of the nation’s 170,000 victims died.

In the main city, Banda Aceh, several thousand mourners gathered in a park yesterday for the nation’s official remembrance.

It was near the epicentre of the massive undersea quake and bore the brunt of waves towering up to 35 metres high.

“Thousands of corpses were sprawled in this field,” Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla told the crowd, many among them weeping.

“There were feelings of confusion, shock, sorrow, fear and suffering. We prayed. And then we rose and received help in an extraordinary way,” he said, hailing the outpouring of aid from local and foreign donors.

The disaster also ended a decades-long separatist conflict in Aceh, with a peace deal between the rebels and Jakarta struck less than a year later.

Mosques held prayers across the province, while people visited mass graves – the resting place of many of Indonesia’s tsunami dead.

But a Red Cross display of hundreds of salvaged ID documents and bank cards served as grim reminder that many victims simply vanished.

* Agence France-Presse

Published: December 27, 2014 04:00 AM

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