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World marks 10 years since devastating Asian tsunami

4 min

Thousands of people are holding memorials on Friday to mark 10 years since an earthquake off the Indonesian coast spawned a devastating tsunami that claimed 220,00 lives and destroyed coastal areas in 14 nations.


Tsunami-hit nations began commemorating the 220,000 people who perished on December 26, 2004, after a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia's western tip generated a series of massive waves that devastated coastlines from Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka to Somalia.

Among the victims were thousands of foreign tourists enjoying the region's warm temperatures over Christmas, bringing the tragedy home to citizens around the world.

The Indonesian national anthem opened an official memorial at a 20-acre park in Indonesia's Banda Aceh -- the main city of the province closest to the epicentre of the massive quake and which bore the brunt of waves towering up to 35 metres (115 feet) high.

"Thousands of corpses were sprawled in this field," Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told a crowd of several thousand gathered for the commemorations.

"Tears that fell at that time... there were feelings of confusion, shock, sorrow, fear and suffering. We prayed," he said.

"And then we rose and received help in an extraordinary way. Help came from Indonesia and everyone else, our spirits were revived," he added, hailing the outpouring of funding and other aid that came from local and foreign donors in the wake of the disaster.

Mosques also held prayers across the province early on Friday while people visited mass graves – the resting place of many of the 170,000 people Indonesia lost in the disaster.

'I remember them every day '

In southern Thailand, where half of the 5,300 dead were foreign tourists, a smattering of holidaymakers gathered at a memorial park in the small fishing village of Ban Nam Khem, which was obliterated by the waves.

As the ceremony began, survivors 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, killing half of the village's inhabitants.

Swiss national Raymond Moor said he noticed something was amiss when he saw a line on the horizon rushing towards the beach where he and his wife were having breakfast.

"I told my wife to run for her life... it wasn't a wave but a black wall," he said, describing being caught up in the water moments later like "being in a washing machine".

"A Thai woman from the hotel saved my life by pulling me up to a balcony. She died later," he said, busting into tears.

Nearby, Somjai Somboon, 40, said she had yet to get over the loss of her two sons, who were ripped from their house when the waves crashed into Thailand.

"I remember them every day," she told AFP, with tears in her eyes.

In Sweden, which lost 543 people to the waves, the royal family and relatives of those who died will attend a memorial service in Uppsala Cathedral on Friday afternoon.

Relief efforts

Disaster-stricken nations struggled to mobilise a relief effort, with bloated bodies piling up under the tropical sun or in makeshift morgues.

The world poured money and expertise into relief and reconstruction, with more than $13.5 billion collected in the months after the disaster.

Almost $7 billion in aid went into rebuilding more than 140,000 houses across Aceh, thousands of kilometres of roads, and new schools and hospitals.

Tens of thousands of children were among the dead.

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

In Sri Lanka, where 31,000 people perished, preparations were under way to hold a memorial at a railway site where waves crashed into a passenger train, killing 1,500 people.

Ahead of the ceremony, a train guard who survived told AFP that a lack of knowledge of tsunamis – in a region which had not experienced one in living memory – led to more deaths than necessary.

"We had about 15 minutes to move the passengers to safety. I could have done it. We had the time, but not the knowledge," said Wanigaratne Karunatilleke, 58.

A pan-ocean tsunami warning system was established in 2011, made up of sea gauges and buoys, while individual countries have invested heavily in disaster preparedness since the 2004 catastrophe.

But experts have cautioned against the perils of "disaster amnesia" overtaking communities vulnerable to natural disasters as memory of the tragedy fades.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)


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