One month after an epic tsunami ravaged southern Asia, children and teachers in Indonesia's worst-hit Aceh province on Wednesday made an emotional return to school, where thousands of desks of classmates and colleagues sat empty.
Alqausar, a 6-year-old boy with neatly parted hair, arrived at school with his mother and wondered where his best friend Andi was. But reality soon dawned on him.
"I don't think he's coming," whispered the boy, one of six in his class of 43 who showed up at a primary school. Of the school's enrollment of 600, only 260 came Wednesday. The others are presumed dead.
Mourners along a road on Sri Lanka's shattered coastline lit candles and set colored flags in silent memory of at least 30,957 people who died there Dec. 26.
"In memory of that day, for the missing and dead in all the countries, we are praying that a tsunami will never return, said L. Chandaransi, head monk at the Ariyakara Viharaya temple near the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle.
Up to 147,000 people are still missing across South Asia, and differing government tallies put the overall death toll between 144,000 and 178,000. But workers continued to find bodies under mud-caked rubble, and the toll was expected to rise.
Children returning to schools for their first official day of class since the tsunami in Indonesia found buildings filled with mud and debris. Books were soggy, new microscopes were ruined.
English teacher Roslina Ramli — who lost her four children to the tsunami — was the first of 25 teachers to show up.
"There were 75 teachers here before," she said, wiping tears with a tissue.
The government estimates that 700 to 1,100 schools in the province were destroyed by the tsunami and that 1,750 primary school teachers are dead or missing. Nearly 180,000 students have no schools to go to, Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said.
In one classroom, workers doing last-minute clean-up found a body Wednesday while shoveling out thick mud.
At least 96,232 people died in the province, the government says.
In Thailand, where at least 5,384 people were killed and more than 3,100 are missing, two residents of the island of Koh Lanta were to mark the anniversary by launching new boats built for them with relief agency donations. Before heading out to sea at high tide, the front of each boat was to be wrapped in a seven-colored cloth and flowers, in keeping with regional traditions.
In Sri Lanka, a judge will begin hearing evidence next week from nine women who each claim that an infant dubbed "Baby 81" is her lost child.
The baby boy was found half buried in mud hours after last month's tsunami struck and is being cared for at a hospital in eastern Sri Lanka, where he was the 81st admission on the day of the disaster.
"I will go through all the evidence and if I am not satisfied, I will order a DNA test," said Judge M.P. Mohaideen.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, said it is scaling back its tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia after nearly a month of airlifting food and medicine.
The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which was diverted to Sumatra within four days of the Dec. 26 disaster with 17 SH-60 Seahawk helicopters aboard, is preparing to sail home to Everett, Wash., the military officials said. The United Nations, Australia and other countries have begun flying their own helicopters.
"Our role was important at first. Now that the other forces are coming in, the need for the helicopters is less important," said Rear Adm. William Crowder, who commands the Lincoln's battle group.
The international Red Cross said Wednesday it was winding down fund-raising efforts because it had raised enough money — $1.17 billion — to sustain long-term aid.
Behind Wednesday's commemorations and public grieving was a deepening sense of frustration among some survivors over the slowness of recovery efforts.
"We have not received any assistance yet," read a banner strung between plastic tents housing survivors in Sri Lanka's Galle.
The government has promised to rebuild homes destroyed in the tsunami but has banned houses from being built along the beach front. Fishermen have grumbled that they need to live near the water for their livelihood.
"We have enough food and water but we need boats and nets. We don't want to be beggars," said fisherman Priyantha Senaviratna, 27, who lost his 4-year-old daughter to the waves.
"I lost everything to the sea, but I want to get it back through the sea. If the government will give me a boat, I can start my life again. I just hear politicians' promises but I see no action at all," he said.