On December 26, 2004 a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia’s western tip generated a series of massive waves that pummelled the coastline of 14 countries as far apart as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Somalia.
Among the victims were thousands of foreign tourists enjoying Christmas in the region, carrying the tragedy of an unprecedented natural disaster into homes around the world.
A chorus of voices singing the Indonesian national anthem marked the start of the ceremony 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 the destructive waves.
“We are gathered here today to remember the historic disaster that took place on December 26. As we know, it was one of the biggest to have ever happened on our Earth,” Aceh governor Zaini Abdullah told the crowd of several thousand including dignitaries gathered for the official memorial.
“The disaster was also an awakening — to be aware of our environment and to continue to be vigilant and understand how to deal with disasters,” he said.
“Learning from our experience, we call for strengthening of solidarity in handling disasters to lighten the load of disaster victims across the world,” he said, hailing the outpouring of aid from local and foreign donors.
Mosques also held prayers across the province early Friday while people visited the mass graves — the resting place of many of Indonesia’s 170,000 tsunami dead.
‘I remember them everyday ‘
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, in a reminder of the global scale of the disaster.
“Everyone knew someone affected by the tsunami, I knew people too. We want to show our respect,” said Agnes Moberg, 18, from Sweden, which lost more than 500 of its nationals and was due to honour its dead later Friday.
Nearby, Somjai Somboon, 40, said she was yet to get over the loss of her two sons, who were ripped from their house when the waves cut into Thailand.
“I remember them every day,” she told AFP, with tears in her eyes.
The scale of the tragedy emerged in the hours and days after the waves struck.
Disaster-stricken nations struggled to mobilise a relief effort, leaving bloated bodies to pile up under the tropical sun or in makeshift morgues.
The world poured money and expertise into the 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 underway 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 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,” 58-year-old Wanigaratne Karunatilleke said.
To plug that gap 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.
But experts have cautioned against the perils of “disaster amnesia” creeping into communities vulnerable to natural disasters. (AFP)