Asia marks fifth Tsunami anniversary

December 26, 2009 12:00 am

, BANDA ACEH, December 26 – People across Asia paused Saturday to remember the day five years ago when an undersea earthquake unleashed a devastating wave that killed more than 220,000 people.

A solemn day of prayers and remembrance to mark one of the world\\\’s worst natural disasters was held in Indonesia\\\’s Aceh province, which lost almost 170,000 people in the Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004.

Prayers were said in mosques throughout the staunchly Islamic province, and beside mass graves near the local capital of Banda Aceh.

At the site of one of the graves, where more than 14,000 unidentified victims are buried, an elderly woman sat on the ground weeping and reciting Koranic verses for the 40 members of her family who died.

"None of my family members survived in the tsunami. My children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, they all have gone and left me alone here," Siti Aminah, 72, told AFP.

"This is the mass grave situated close to our residence blocks. They may be buried here or might have been swept away to sea as we were living by the beach," she said.

Aminah, a spice seller, was on the second floor of a market building about five kilometres (three miles) from her home when the tsunami struck.

"Though I don\\\’t know for sure where they were buried, I always come here every year to pray for them so that God will let them rest in peace," she said.

Two kilometres away, Indonesian Vice-President Boediono led a prayer ceremony in the port of Ulee Lheu in memory of those lost.

"Five years on, Acehnese people with support from international communities have managed to rise again and to lead a new life to rebuild their social, economic and cultural life in a peaceful situation," he told about 1,000 residents, schoolchildren and officials.

In Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapakse led remembrance ceremonies by observing two minutes of silence for tsunami victims.

State radio and television halted broadcasts for two minutes in the morning at 9:25 AM local (0355 GMT) to coincide with the time the tsunami struck the island\\\’s southern coastal regions.

Religious ceremonies were held across the island to remember the estimated 31,000 people who perished five years ago. Families gave donations to the poor, temples and churches in memory of their loved ones.

Low-key commemorations marked the anniversary in southern India, which bore the brunt of the disaster in that country, with an estimated 6,500 deaths.

On Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state, women from nearby fishing hamlets poured milk into the sea and showered flower petals over the water as a mark of respect for those who died.

Special church services were held in the city of Kanniyakumari, where large numbers of Christians live, while fishermen in the city of Cuddalore did not set out to sea to fish on Saturday as a mark of respect.

In India\\\’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, multi-faith prayers were held in the archipelago\\\’s capital Port Blair for about 4,000 people killed by the tsunami across the island chain.

In Thailand, where the tsunami killed 5,395 people according to an official toll, religious ceremonies were held on the beach in Phang Nga on the west coast, which was worst hit, and on the southern tourist isle of Phuket.

Police said some 1,000 Thais and foreigners attended the ceremony at Ban Namkhem in Phang Nga Saturday morning, while 200 people gathered at Patong beach in Phuket for prayers and to see flower wreaths laid in commemoration.

The 2004 tsunami was triggered by a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, and seismologists agree another event of that magnitude is almost certain to strike the quake-prone region again.

Sound alert systems have been developed in many countries to warn of impending danger, but getting that message out to seaside communities, and to children in particular, is still a challenge.

UN Under-Secretary General Noeleen Heyzer said countries in the region had been working with international partners to strengthen early-warning systems but "significant gaps" needed to be addressed.

"We won\\\’t know when the next major tsunami in the Indian Ocean will strike," she added. "But by learning from disaster response, recovery and preparedness efforts — we can ensure our future is a safer one."

As the reconstruction effort winds down five years after the disaster, there are also concerns about corruption in the distribution of billions of dollars of international aid.

Indonesia\\\’s tsunami reconstruction agency finished work in April, having spent almost seven billion dollars on rebuilding including 140,000 new homes, 1,759 school buildings, 363 bridges and 13 airports.

The reconstruction effort has generally been hailed as a success, but relief agencies have complained about widespread graft and questions remain about how much of the aid was actually spent.


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