A Year Later, World Recalls Fury of Asian Tsunami

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- The world remembered the fury of the Indian Ocean tsunami that one year ago Monday swept away at least 216,000 people in 12 countries and laid waste to entire communities in one of the worst natural disasters in memory.

From Indonesia and Thailand to Sri Lanka and as far off as east Africa, mourners gathered at solemn official commemorations as others flocked to mass graves, mosques and beaches for smaller, often achingly personal ones.

"It was under the same blue sky exactly one year ago that Mother Earth unleashed her most destructive power upon us," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told a crowd of hundreds at a function in the shattered province of Aceh.

In Thailand, a man sat alone on Patong beach, weeping quietly as the sea gently lapped before him, a bouquet of white roses stuck in the sand.

Standing nearby, Ulrika Landgren, 37, had come from Malmo, Sweden, to see where nine of her friends died.

"Somehow, it's good to see this place," she said, tears leaking from behind her sunglasses.

A year earlier, a magnitude-9 earthquake -- the most powerful in 40 years -- ruptured the ocean floor off the Sumatran coast, displacing billions of tons of water and sending 10-meter waves roaring across the Indian Ocean at jetliner speeds.

The impact was staggering.

The waves swept a passenger train off the rails in Peraliya, Sri Lanka, killing nearly 2,000 people in a single blow. Entire villages in Indonesia and India were wiped off the map. The lobbies of five-star hotels in Thailand were left littered with corpses.

When the waves hit, Muhammad Yani clung to the second floor of an Aceh mosque, watching waters full of people and rubbish roil past him.

"I was not afraid at the time," said Yani, 35, who later learned that his parents and a younger brother had been killed. "I was more aware than ever that my soul belonged to Allah."

Yudhoyono sounded a tsunami warning siren at 8:16 a.m. local time -- the moment the first wave struck -- to start a minute's silence.

Further south, sirens sounded in the town of Padang as Indonesia tested its tsunami warning system -- a chilling reminder that the island sits on one of the world's most unstable geological fault lines and is still vulnerable.

Scores of powerful aftershocks have rumbled through the region all year.

"We knew it was just a drill," said Candra Yohanes, 55, who was among thousands of residents of Padang town who fled to higher ground when the alarms rang out Monday. "Still, when I heard the siren, my heart was pounding so hard."

Somber ceremonies were held across the world. In Thailand, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, who lost her 21-year-old son when he was caught on a jet ski, expressed solidarity with other mourners. Sweden, Germany, Finland and Norway were among European countries where candlelight vigils and other ceremonies were held to commemorated the loss of citizens. The tsunami killed more than 2,400 foreigners, many of them European tourists, in Thailand. In Somalia, services were held in mosques along the African nation's coast to commemorate those who died and to pray for the tens of thousands still homeless.

In total, at least 216,000 people were killed or disappeared in the waves, The Associated Press found in an assessment of government and credible relief agency figures in each country hit. The UN gives a figure of 223,000 dead or missing, though it says some countries are still updating their figures.

The true toll will probably never be known. Many bodies were lost at sea and population data in some places was destroyed.

"It was so brutal, so quick, and so extensive that we are still struggling to fully comprehend it," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a videotaped message Monday.

The tsunami generated one of the most generous outpourings of foreign aid ever known. The UN says some $13 billion was pledged, of which 75 percent has been secured.

But the pace of reconstruction has been criticized, and frustration has grown, with 80 percent of the 1.8 million people displaced by the waves still living in tents, plywood barracks or with family and friends.

"You want to talk about changes, we've seen nothing," said Baihqi, a 24-year-old Acehnese survivor, waving a hand dismissively at the jumble of scrap iron and plastic sheeting that is all that remains of his neighborhood. "Many promises of aid, but that's all we get -- promises."