Thousands of people fled beaches on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali in a tsunami drill Tuesday, kicking off remembrances across Asia two years after devastating waves crashed into coastlines and killed 230,000 people.
Elsewhere across the disaster zone, survivors and mourners were marking the anniversary by visiting mass graves, lighting candles along beaches and observing two minutes of silence. Some volunteers were preparing to plant 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.
Walls of water two stories high swept entire villages to sea in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, submerged luxury resorts and fishing communities in Thailand and destroyed thousands of homes in India.
Sirens offer a reminder and a lesson
The drill Tuesday — which involved real-time warnings sent from the capital to radios along the beach — was aimed at raising awareness and at testing technology deployed in the country hardest hit two years ago.
Nearly 167,000 of those killed were from Aceh province on Sumatra where tens of thousands of people still live in temporary homes. The hardest hit zone is nowhere near Bali.
Sirens wailed as masses, many of them school children, briskly walked inland from Bali’s shore, accompanied by Indonesia’s minister of research and technology and a handful of foreign tourists.
But not everyone was moving.
“I’m not going anywhere. I still have to make some money this morning,” said Wati, a woman selling baked corn-on-the-cob on the beach.
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.
Authorities will also open a cemetery for hundreds of unidentified tsunami victims.
“We hope this will be part of the healing process for those who lost loved ones,” said Chamroen Tankasem, a government official in southern Thailand, a tropical paradise that was turned into a graveyard in a matter of minutes.
“It will also help us remember what happened, what we have learned since ... and what more needs to be done for the people affected.”
Civil war adds to suffering
In Sri Lanka, the resurgence of a civil war has added to the misery of survivors and slowed efforts to rebuild — sparking criticism Tuesday from outgoing U.N. 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.”
While many in the island nation were preoccupied with war on Tuesday, Hindu and Buddhist temples were ringing bells to mark the time the first wave hit followed by two of silence to remember the 35,000 killed.
In India, where another 18,000 are believed to have died, interfaith ceremonies were being held. In Malaysia, where 69 people died, volunteers were preparing to replant mangroves, saying the tsunami demonstrated how important the coastal forests can be in protecting communities.
The 2004 tsunami generated an unprecedented outpouring of generosity, with donor pledges reaching some $13.6 billion. But many of the 2 million made homeless complain they still do not have adequate places to live.