Monks pray, butchers hang up knives as Sri Lanka honors tsunami victims

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The Independent Online

Sri Lanka on Monday remembered the Dec. 26 tsunami victims with prayers, flowers, lamps and a two-minute silence as survivors, officials and foreign diplomats gathered in a village that suffered the country's largest loss of life.

Butchers hung up their knives to show respect for life while Buddhist monks prepared to chant through the night on the first anniversary of the disaster that left at least 216,000 dead and missing in a dozen countries.

In the southern village of Peraliya — where the raging waves swept a passenger train from its tracks, killing nearly 2,000, including passengers and others who tried to escape the tsunami by getting on top of the carriages, ordinary Sri Lankans and international diplomats joined President Mahinda Rajapakse to honor the country's more than 35,000 dead and missing, the second-highest count after Indonesia.

Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergymen, representing Sri Lanka's four main religions, opened the ceremonies with prayers. A two-minute silence followed at 9:30 a.m. (0330 GMT) — the time the waves hit — and a temple bell rang nine times. Rajapakse placed flowers on a monument.

He recalled the generosity of foreign and domestic donors, but said Sri Lanka has failed to capitalize on the goodwill to rebuild and restore peace.

"Could we do justice to those who perished in the tsunami? Could we continue with the initial wave of determination to rise again?" he said.

"It is sad to say that both you and me are unable to provide satisfactory answers to these questions."

He said a new project called "Jaya Lanka" or "Victory Lanka" would "take forward the rebuilding process with a new vigor."

Initial hopes that the disaster might lead to an easing of tensions between Sri Lanka's government and Tamil Tiger rebels quickly faded amid bickering over reconstruction aid. There are fears of a return to civil war.

But international agencies praised Sri Lanka's efforts to rebuild, saying that 250,000 displaced people have been moved to temporary shelters and that construction of permanent housing is picking up pace.

"Much has been achieved this year," said a joint statement from U.N. agencies, the International Organization for Migration, the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. " But more needs to be done."

Banners draped both sides of the road leading to Peraliya's main Buddhist temple, honoring victims and urging people to preserve the environment to avoid future disasters. "Let there be never a tragedy like this in our country," one read.

Near the remembrance site, white mourning flags fluttered on a beach where hundreds are buried in mass graves, where mourners lit clay lamps at dusk after a Buddhist monk conducted religious rites.

"This light symbolizes our hope that darkness will be dispelled from our lives and there will be a better future for us," said monk Peraliye Wimala in his sermon.

"This is also our hope that the souls of those who were killed will be in peace," he said.

In neighboring Seenigama, a nongovernment organization planted one tree for each of the village's 120 tsunami victims and gave away scholarships to hundreds of children.

Later, about 100 children walked to the beach carrying green and white balloons symbolizing misfortune and hope.

Rajapakse issued four new postage stamps showing tsunami waves and parts of the ill-fated train.

All meat stalls in the capital, Colombo, remained closed on Monday to show their respect, said a statement from the Meat Producers and Marketer's Society. Sri Lanka's Buddhist traditions forbid harming living beings.