Indonesia, Thailand mark tsunami with prayers
CALANG, Indonesia (Reuters) - Hundreds of Indonesians prayed at mass graves in Aceh province on Wednesday, while in Thailand Buddhist monks held a ceremony to remember the many thousands who died in the Indian Ocean tsunami three years ago.
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.
In Ciwandan on Java's northwestern coast, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono watched the drill to test a tsunami early warning system.
"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 better prepare for another such disaster.
At Phuket in Thailand, locals and foreigners gathered for a blessing ceremony on the island led by maroon-robed Buddhist monks.
In the evening, mourners gathered on the beach at Khao Lak to the north of Phuket to release hundreds of lantern balloons into the night sky to commemorate the souls of the departed.
More than 2,000 holidaymakers, many of them from Europe, died at Khao Lak as giant waves smashed into luxury hotels. The disaster killed or left missing nearly 5,400 people in Thailand.
Commemorations were low-key in Sri Lanka, where the tsunami battered around two-thirds of the island's shoreline and left 35,000 people dead or missing.
Government medical officer W.A.P Manoj and his family cooked rice and curry for Buddhist monks who blessed the home they have rebuilt in the southern village of Peraliya, where the tsunami swept away a train, killing 1,270 people on board.
"Every day I remember the tsunami. I will never forget it," he said, placing a lit candle by a beachside mural depicting wrecked train carriages and those who perished in the disaster.
India distributed its first permanent shelters to 200 families that lost their homes in the tsunami in the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands on Wednesday, under a rehabilitation plan marked by delays.
Nearly 42,000 people, or close to 10,000 families, were rendered homeless by the waves that struck the archipelago off India's eastern coast.
More than 3,500 people were killed on the islands and nearly 9,000 people were killed on the mainland, mostly in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of BRR, the agency charged with rebuilding the Indonesian regions hit by the tsunami said more than 100,000 homes had been rebuilt in Aceh and another 20,000 were due to be completed by June next year.
Yulida, a survivor who lost two children, said she still had no home.
Other survivors were back on their feet again three years on but many remain haunted by the loss of loved ones.
Salawati, 36, told how two daughters died in the disaster. But at least a new home-run food business had made her life easier.
Before the monster waves 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.
(Reporting by Reuters Television in Calang, Dadang Tri in Ciwandan, Ahmad Pathoni and Adhityani Arga in Jakarta, Simon Gardner in Colombo, Ed Cropley in Bangkok and Sanjib Kumar Roy in Port Blair; writing by David Fogarty; editing by Roger Crabb)