U.S. News

Asian Nations Remember Indian Ocean Tsunami Two Years On


Thousands of people lit candles, visited mass graves and observed two minutes of silence on Tuesday two years after an unprecedented tsunami pulverized villages along the Indian Ocean and killed 230,000 people.

At a mosque in Ulee Lheue, Aceh, the Indonesian province worst hit by monster waves that came rolling out of the sea on a bright Sunday morning, imam Usman Dodi told worshippers the tsunami was a religious warning.

"Please forgive the people who have left us for their wrongdoing," the imam prayed, returning to a sermon some religious leaders preached after a disaster that killed 169,000 people in northern Sumatra and left a half million homeless.

The seaside mosque in Ulee Lheue became an icon of one of history's worst natural disasters. 

It was the only building left standing after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake ruptured the ocean floor off the tip of northern Sumatra, triggering waves that slammed into the coastlines of a dozen Indian Ocean nation at the speed of a freight train. 

Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush visited the town and helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in rebuilding projects.

Fleeing Conflict Now

In stark contrast to Aceh, where the disaster led to a landmark peace settlement of a three-decade insurgency, commemorations in rebel-held areas of Sri Lanka were muted.

A resurgence in Sri Lanka's two-decade civil has forced thousands of Tamils, including tsunami survivors, to flee homes and camps for the second time in two years.

"There isn't much to show for by way of reconstruction. There isn't much to commemorate when you have barely moved an inch," said a Western aid official involved in the tsunami relief. "The tsunami could have been a turning point in the conflict, if both parties had agreed on an aid-sharing pact. Instead, it has now become another point of division."

Church and temple bells rang across much of Sri Lanka's south where reconstruction is almost complete. Like other tsunami-struck areas of the Indian Ocean rim, Sri Lankans observed two minutes of silence at the time the tsunami struck  and lit candles.

Port Blair, the capital of India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, came to a standstill early in the morning after a siren reminded people to observe a two-minute silence for the 3,500 people killed or missing.

In Khao Lak, the southern coastal resort where most of Thailand's 5,395 victims died, students and foreigners gathered near a police patrol boat swept ashore two years ago to remember loved ones. "We won't forget, but I don't dream about it," a German tourist in her 50s told Thai television. "He was crazy in his head two years ago," she said, pointing to her husband, who also survived the deadly waves.

In the nearby town of Bang Muang, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests and Muslim clerics officiated at the opening of Anonymous Cemetery, where 409 tsunami victims who have not been identified were buried.

The identification process on those bodies would continue amid calls from the U.S. and six other European nations to speed up their work and to probe an alleged misuse of donations to fund the identification of those bodies.
Tsunami Drills

Indian Ocean countries have installed expensive warning systems and are staging periodic evacuation drills to prepare better for another such disaster.

On the tourist island of Bali -- which was not affected by the 2004 tsunami -- around 15,000 people, mostly school children, took part in an evacuation drill. "Oh, just run as far as you can," said Made Arimbawa, elementary school student, when asked what he would do if a tsunami came.

But for tsunami survivors, the day was about looking back, not worrying about the future.

At a mass grave in the Ulee Lheue area, one of many such sites in Aceh where the scope of the disaster made individual burials impractical, Muria Yahya, 68, who lost two children and five grandchildren, prayed.

"I pray for my family, that they will be given the right place in the hereafter," Yahya told Reuters as she stood at the grave, where green grass now covers the bare earth that scarred the land just after the burials.