Asian nations remember the 230,000 killed in the tsunami

Indonesia's largest-ever tsunami drills to kick off remembrances across Asia two years after devastating waves crashed into coastlines.

thai tsunami christmas (photo credit: AP)
thai tsunami christmas
(photo credit: AP)
Thousands of people fled beaches in one of Indonesia's largest-ever tsunami drills Tuesday, kicking off remembrances across Asia two years after devastating waves crashed into coastlines and killed 230,000 people. Elsewhere, survivors and mourners marked the anniversary by visiting mass graves, lighting candles along beaches, observing a moment of silence and erecting warning towers in hopes of saving lives in the future. Some volunteers were replanting mangroves, saying they were key to protecting coastal communities. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that ripped apart the ocean floor off Indonesia's Sumatra island on Dec. 26, 2004 spawned giant waves that fanned out across the Indian Ocean at jetliner speeds, killing people in a dozen countries and leaving millions homeless. Entire villages were swept to sea in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, luxury resorts and fishing communities submerged in Thailand and thousands of homes destroyed in southern India - where commemorations were small and subdued. A dozen fishermen watched gulls circle overhead in one hard-hit hamlet early Tuesday, staring at the sea and telling stories about villagers who died. Hundreds more gathered as the day went on, some throwing flowers into the water as others lit camphor sticks. "Ever since the tsunami, my brother has done nothing but drink," said Nagarwali, 42, pointing to a fisherman who lost his wife and three children in the waves. The drill on Indonesia's resort island of Bali - which involved real-time warnings sent from the capital to radios along the beach - was as much about raising awareness as testing technology deployed in the country hardest hit two years ago. Nearly 167,000 of those killed were from Aceh province - hundreds of kilometers (miles) from Bali - where tens of thousands of people still live in temporary homes. Sirens wailed as masses, many of them school children, briskly walked inland from the shore, accompanied by Indonesia's minister of research and technology and a handful of foreign tourists. "The biggest challenge is working with the people to make them aware," said German geologist Harald Spahn, who is helping Indonesia set up its alert network. "It is a really complex job that many people underestimate." Underscoring his point, a woman selling baked corn on the beach refused to budge. "I'm not going anywhere," said Wati. "I still have to make some money this morning." In Thailand, ceremonies will be held along the Andaman coast with Buddhist prayers to remember more than 8,200 killed. Balloons will be launched and candles lit along beaches once again filled with sun-seeking tourists. But as authorities prepared to open a cemetery for hundreds of unidentified tsunami victims, a new scandal emerged. The US and six other Western nations said as much as 60 percent of the US$1.6 million set aside to help identify those who died may have been misused, an unnamed US diplomat was quoted as saying in The Nation, an English-language daily published in Thailand. The money appears to have gone toward travel and other miscellaneous costs, he said, calling for an investigation. In Sri Lanka, the resurgence of a civil war has added to the misery of survivors and slowed efforts to rebuild - sparking criticism from outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who urged Tamil Tiger rebels and the military to lay down their arms. "No one could have prevented the tsunami's wave of destruction," he wrote in a statement. "But together, we can stem the tide of conflict, which threatens once again to engulf the people of Sri Lanka." Temple bells chimed to mark the exact time the first wave crashed ashore, and all cars and trucks came to a standstill for two minutes. Looking to the future, officials also erected the first of 100 coastal warning towers. In India, where another 18,000 are believe to have died, interfaith ceremonies were being be held and in Malaysia, where 69 people were killed, volunteers were replanting mangroves. The 2004 tsunami generated an unprecedented outpouring of generosity, with donor pledges reaching some US$13.6 billion (euro10.31 billion), but many of those homeless complain they are stuck with poorly built structures that leak, are termite-infested or located in flood zones. Corruption has also marred the process, with several nongovernment organizations forced to delay projects or rebuild homes after contractors and suppliers ran off with the funds.