As world honours the dead, Indonesia set to begin tsunami memorials

As world honours the dead, Indonesia set to begin tsunami memorials

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - Thousands of people were due Thursday at a memorial in Indonesia's Aceh province, the epicentre of the Indian Ocean tsunami, as the world prepared to mark a decade since a disaster that took 220,000 lives and laid waste to coastal areas in 14 countries.

On December 26, 2004 a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia's western coast sparked a series of towering waves that wrought destruction across countries as far apart as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Somalia.

Among the victims were thousands of foreign holidaymakers enjoying Christmas on the region's sun-kissed beaches, striking tragedy into homes around the world.

Tsunami survivors and rescue workers will lead several thousand people in a gathering at Banda Aceh's black-domed Baiturrahman Grand Mosque for memorial prayers late Thursday.

Aceh's governor is set to give an address at the mosque, one of the few buildings which withstood the wrath of the massive earthquake and ensuing waves which left 170,000 people in the country dead or missing.

"Prayers are being held in memory of the victims who perished or went missing," tsunami anniversary committee chairman Azhari Hasan told AFP.

"We also hope that survivors - and the families they left behind - can stay strong and be aware of the (future) threat of disasters," he added.

In Meulaboh, a fishing town considered to be the ground zero of the tsunami - where 35 metre-high waves flattened almost everything - Indonesian flags were flown at half-mast as residents prepared to hold night prayers.

But the main memorials were planned for Friday morning, starting in Aceh which was hit first by the waves, then moving to Thailand later in the day where candlelit ceremonies are expected in resort hubs of Phuket and Khao Lak.

There will also be events in Sri Lanka, including at the site where a train carrying 1,500 people was washed away, as well as in several European capitals to honour foreign nationals who perished.

'Like being in a washing machine'

Many of the tsunami's victims died in dark, churning waters laden with uprooted trees, boats, cars and eviscerated beach bungalows, as the waves surged miles inland and then retreated, sucking many more into the sea.

Thailand saw 5,395 people killed by the disaster - half of them foreign holidaymakers.

British survivor Andy Chaggar was in a bungalow on Thailand's Khao Lak when the tsunami waves struck, taking his girlfriend's life and sweeping him inland.

"I came to in the water... there was glass, metal, there were pieces of wood, bricks, it was like being in a washing machine full of nails," he told AFP on Thursday on the same beach where he lost his girlfriend.

As the scale of the tragedy emerged, disaster-stricken nations struggled to mobilise a relief effort, leaving bloated bodies to pile up in the tropical sun or makeshift morgues.

The world poured money and expertise into the relief and reconstruction, with more than US$13.5 billion (S$17.85 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 (miles) of roads, and new schools and hospitals.

The vast majority of Indonesia's 170,000 victims perished in the province, among them tens of thousands of children.

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

It also prompted the establishment of pan-ocean tsunami warning system, made up of sea gauges and buoys, 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.

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