World News

Indonesia marks three years after tsunami with prayers

CALANG, Indonesia (Reuters) - Hundreds of Indonesians prayed at mass graves in Aceh province on Wednesday to remember relatives who died in the Indian Ocean tsunami three years ago.

A teacher holds a Quran as students gather in a mass prayer for 2004 tsunami victims in Banda Aceh December 26, 2007. Thousands of Indonesian factory workers and villagers scrambled up the hills of Java island on Wednesday as sirens blared in a drill to mark the third anniversary of the deadly Asian tsunami. REUTERS/Tarmizy Harva

On December 26, 2004, giant waves triggered by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded pulverized villages along Indian Ocean shores, killing or leaving missing about 230,000 people.

Aceh, on the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, suffered the most, with about 170,000 dead or missing and billions of dollars in losses.

“We pray for the victims that God may accept their good deeds,” said Kamal Usman, a survivor in Calang, an area in western Aceh where hundreds of officials and residents prayed at a ceremony to mark the anniversary.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, thousands of factory workers and villagers scrambled to higher ground as sirens blared in a drill to mark the third anniversary of the disaster.

In Ciwandan on the shore of northwestern Java, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono watched the drill to test a tsunami early warning system.

As part of the drill, authorities also tested the response of emergency relief teams to a mock chemical leak in a factory if an 8.5 magnitude quake were to hit the area.

“We hope through this exercise people begin to understand that they live in a tsunami-prone area and know what to do in case of an emergency,” said Ami Pramitasari of the research and technology ministry, which led the drill.

Since the tsunami, Indian Ocean countries have installed expensive warning systems and staged periodic evacuation drills to prepare better for another such disaster. Indonesia, situated in a belt of intense seismic activity known as the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, has installed sirens along the coast of quake-prone islands such as Sumatra and Java.

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Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of BRR, the agency charged with rebuilding the Indonesian regions hit by the tsunami, said the reconstruction pace was the fastest in the world.

“There are shortfalls which of course need to be addressed but BRR and all parties that are working in rehabilitating and reconstructing Aceh and Nias have shown significant achievements,” he said in a statement.

Mangkusubroto said more than 100,000 homes had been rebuilt in Aceh and another 20,000 were due to be completed by June next year.

But Yulida, a survivor who lost two children, said she still had no home.

“I hope that they can build a house for me as soon as possible,” she told Reuters.

Many survivors are back on their feet again three years on.

Salawati, 36, said a new home-run tuna business had made her life easier, although memories of the two daughters who died in the tsunami still haunted her.

Before the monster wave destroyed her house she used to sell a local delicacy made from shredded dried tuna fish and coconut.

She has revived the business and it is now flourishing.

“We started selling this shredded fish to our neighbors and to the parents in my son’s school. They liked it and we started receiving orders from more and more customers,” said Salawati.

The tsunami helped end three decades of fighting between the government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in which 15,000 people died. The two parties signed a peace agreement in 2005, eight months after the disaster.

Reporting by Reuters Television in Calang, Dadang Tri in Ciwandan, Ahmad Pathoni and Adhityani Arga in Jakarta; editing by Sugita Katyal and Roger Crabb