Mourners mark tsunami’s first anniversary.jpg

Mourners mark tsunami’s first anniversary

CEREMONIES TOOK place recently to mark the first anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. More than 200,000 people in 13 different countries were killed when an earthquake beneath the ocean sent giant waves crashing ashore, affecting places as far apart as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Somalia.

Indonesia sustained the worst human loss and physical damage in the Boxing Day tragedy of 2004, killing more than 160,000 people and making half a million people homeless. The western tip of the island of Sumatra, the closest inhabited area to the earthquake’s epicentre, was devastated and some coastal villages lost three quarters of their inhabitants. Much of the fishing and agricultural sectors in the Aceh province were heavily damaged and the Asian Development Bank estimates that 44 per cent of people lost their livelihoods.

Sri Lanka also suffered appalling casualty levels, recording a death toll of around 31,000 people. Its southern and eastern coastlines were ravaged and more than 100,000 homes were destroyed. The International Labour Organisation estimates that more than 400,000 people also lost their jobs as a result – mostly in the fishing, hotel and tourism sectors. One of the worst incidents occurred at Telwatta, in the southwest of the island, where 800 people died after a train was struck by the tsunami wave.

Local economies will take years to recover

Since the disaster, governments of the countries hit by the tsunami have faced the daunting task of rebuilding the economies of affected areas. In spite of a huge international relief effort – a total of 13.6 billion dollars has been pledged in humanitarian and reconstruction aid – agencies are warning that it will take years for the region’s local economies to recover.

The timing of the tragedy, coinciding with the Christmas holidays, meant that many Europeans also lost their lives. Sweden suffered the highest losses for any country outside of Asia, mourning 543 of its countrymen, among the 2,400 foreigners who died. Sweden marked the event by holding a minute’s silence and lighting 543 candles in honour of the victims. Hundreds also attended ceremonies in Thailand.

Britain lost a total of 149 people when the tsunami struck and a further six are still missing. Dozens of Britons attended memorial services in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Among them was Surrey schoolgirl Tilly Smith, 11, who has been credited with saving up to 100 people, when she warned dozens of people of the oncoming wave after remembering the signs of a tsunami from a geography lesson.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw apologised to those families caught up in the catastrophe who did not receive adequate support. He said that British Foreign Office officials had done a “fantastic job”, but conceded that, in some cases, help had been insufficient.

Loss of two generations

We live in a media age that worships celebrity. When tragedy affects those in the public eye, it seems their suffering receives more publicity than the deaths of thousands of anonymous victims. But, the human stories surrounding celebrity case histories teach us more about the nature of incalculable grief than reels of grim statistics. Perhaps one story serves to encapsulate the terrible grief endured by relatives of the British tsunami victims.

Film director Richard Attenborough lost his 14-year-old granddaughter Lucy Holland, as well as his daughter and her mother-in-law, both called Jane Holland, in Thailand. Lord Attenborough’s son Michael said: “My mother and father have been utterly devastated by the loss of their daughter and granddaughter. I cannot begin to conceive of my parents’ feelings at the loss of two generations.”

Tragedies such as the tsunami teach us of the fundamental fragility of human existence. They also remind us of the sacrifices of people in wartime when losses of many generations, even entire families, were far from uncommon. It’s a lesson to value those around us, enjoy every moment and take nothing for granted.