Tears in Aceh as thousands remember victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami

Acehnese wept during the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration held at Blang Padang in Banda Aceh on Dec 26, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Acehnese wept during the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration held at Blang Padang in Banda Aceh on Dec 26, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
An Acehnese resident recalling what happened during the 2004 catastrophe, at the Aceh tsunami commemoration event in Banda Aceh on Dec 26, 2014 . -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
An Acehnese resident recalling what happened during the 2004 catastrophe, at the Aceh tsunami commemoration event in Banda Aceh on Dec 26, 2014 . -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Second Minister for Defence (left) Mr Chan Chun Sing and other guests are presented with a yellow sash each at the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration Event 2014 on Dec 26, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Second Minister for Defence (left) Mr Chan Chun Sing and other guests are presented with a yellow sash each at the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration Event 2014 on Dec 26, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Visitors at the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration Event browse through a photobook at the Mercy Relief booth on Dec 26 2014. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Visitors at the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration Event browse through a photobook at the Mercy Relief booth on Dec 26 2014. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
A lady looks at the identity cards of those who had perished during the 2004 tsunami, on Dec 26, 2014 at the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration Event in Banda Aceh. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
A lady looks at the identity cards of those who had perished during the 2004 tsunami, on Dec 26, 2014 at the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration Event in Banda Aceh. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
A man walks past an appreciation board that lists the 53 nations that helped rebuild Aceh after the 2004 Tsunami. The board was put up for the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration Event held on Dec 26, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
A man walks past an appreciation board that lists the 53 nations that helped rebuild Aceh after the 2004 Tsunami. The board was put up for the Aceh Tsunami Commemoration Event held on Dec 26, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Even as Indonesia and much of the world paused yesterday to remember those who perished when a devastating tsunami swallowed chunks of the North Sumatran coastline on Boxing Day 10 years ago, its survivors and leaders are determined to use its lessons to build a better future.

Aceh was devastated by the 9.1-magnitude earthquake that began in the Indian Ocean early that Sunday morning, and yesterday, for about two hours, its bustling capital, Banda Aceh, paused to reflect on the 168,000 among the population of four million people who died.

Flags were flown at half-mast and a solemn memorial was held at the Blang Padang field, where tens of thousands of bodies were strewn in the aftermath.

Tears welled up in many eyes as a video presentation captured the plight of helpless victims amid their flattened homes.

But such "painful memories" were not the only legacy of the tsunami, said Aceh Governor Zaini Abdullah. Building on the memorial's tagline, "Reflection, appreciation and awakening", he said people had been spurred by their great losses to reflect on how they could build a better Aceh in the future.

Speaking to some 7,000 participants, Dr Zaini said the outpouring of aid into Aceh from all corners of the world to rebuild it showed the importance of solidarity and Aceh's place in the world as a global citizen.

"We should use the momentum of this tsunami commemoration to strengthen the feeling of brotherhood among us," he said.

Noting that 1.4 trillion rupiah (S$154 million) in humanitarian and disaster relief and donations came from 53 countries, Dr Zaini said the Acehnese had always received guests from all over the world.

He said the tsunami also helped speed a resolution to the 30-year separatist conflict between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government, with both parties agreeing to a peace treaty the following year.

Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, who was in office at the time, also paid tribute to those who pitched in to help.

Representatives from 35 countries, including Singapore Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing, each received a sash and letter of appreciation from the Aceh government.

Said Mr Chan, who noted the sense of optimism: "I think this speaks well for the Aceh and Indonesian people that they have moved on from the sad episode but they are also looking forward with confidence."

Ms Silfana Amalia Nasri, 23, told The Straits Times: "We were so isolated and never knew much about the outside world.

"But after everyone came in to help us, we are living better lives, getting better jobs, learning a lot more, making us want to become stronger people," said the social worker.

jermync@sph.com.sg