| Margie Mason |
MEULABOH, Indonesia (AP) – It all started with a dream that led to a chance meeting: A girl who had been swept away by the Indian Ocean tsunami a decade ago.
For three nights, the child’s uncle said she visited him in his sleep. When he told the girl’s mother, Jamaliah, it was hard to believe. The daughter was only four when a towering wave ripped her away with her seven-year-old brother, clinging to a board.
But the mother had always been convinced both children were still out there and that the family would be reunited.
Soon after the dream, the uncle ran into a 14-year-old orphan girl who had survived the disaster and washed up on a remote island with her older brother. They had stayed alive by riding a slab of wood.
The odds were impossible, but after the uncle sent a photo of girl, the mother became convinced God was giving their family a second chance.
“I said, ‘I’m sure that’s my daughter,”’ she recalled. “I felt the connection in my womb.”
A month later, Jamaliah had the same feeling. This time, after hearing that a 17-year-old homeless boy calling her “mom” had also been found.
But was it real, or all just a dream?
It was just before 8am on Sunday, December 26, 2004. Jamaliah, who uses only one name, was hanging clothes on the line while her three kids were inside watching TV.
When the 9.1 magnitude quake hit, Jamaliah, her husband, Septi Rangkuti, and the children ran outside their house, which sat about 500 metres from the sea.
They then heard people screaming, “The water is coming! The water is coming!”
The family leaped onto their motorbike and made it as far as the market, but couldn’t outrun the wall of black water.
Jamaliah and her eight-year-old son were pulled away by the wave, but somehow they managed to hang on to each other.
Rangkuti put his seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter on top of a large floating board. He held on as long as he could, but when the water sucked back to the sea, his fingers slipped and they were dragged off by the angry torrent.
Hours later, Jamaliah and their oldest son found Rangkuti wandering on a street. One look at his empty eyes, and she knew the kids were gone.
Some 230,000 people in 14 countries were killed that day in one of the worst natural disasters in modern history, with Indonesia’s Aceh province logging nearly three-quarters of the deaths.
Most of the 1,500 children found after the disaster were returned to their families or taken in by neighbours or friends, though some ended up in orphanages, said Bukhari, who uses one name and heads the Aceh provincial Social Affairs Office.
“The uncertainty of what happened to those children, the desperate hope that maybe they did survive somehow, that irresistible idea that they might be reunited, what parent wouldn’t think about that?” said Harry Minas, a mental health expert from the University of Melbourne who has worked in Aceh.
Jamaliah and Rangkuti spent a month and a half searching for their son, Arif Pratama, and their daughter, Raudhatul Jannah, along a chewed-up coast tangled by debris. They had lost everything, and with no money and a surviving son to look after, they decided to stay with relatives several hours away.
Time passed, and the family tried to move on. Jamaliah had a baby boy two years later, and Rangkuti finally started to let go of his grief. But neither gave up hope they would one day find their lost children.
“I believed it in my heart,” Jamaliah said. “I prayed every night because of the strong emotional connection to my kids. I believed we would be together again.”
This summer, Jamaliah’s older brother, Zainuddin, called with stunning news.
He’d had a dream three nights in a row about a girl in Banda Aceh.
The morning after the third night, he visited a cafe not far from his house and was shocked to see a face that looked just like the one from his dreams – a younger version of Jamaliah.
He learned the girl was a tsunami orphan, and later discovered from the foster family that a fisherman found her and a boy on the sparsely populated Banyak islands, about six and a half hours by car and boat from Jamaliah’s house in Meulaboh.
The girl had little memory of life before the tsunami.
“I remember when we were on the board. I was there with my brother,” she said. “I was found by someone on the beach and taken to a house. That’s where we were split.”
In July, Jamaliah and Rangkuti traveled 100 kilometres to meet the girl called Weniati. At first sight, the mother said it was hard to tell if she was really her child.
Since the tsunami, the girl had lived with three different relatives in one foster family and was now located in South Aceh. She had not attended school regularly and only had a fourth-grade education.
Jamaliah was permitted to take her back to Meulaboh, where they had lived when the tsunami hit, for three days. The desperate mother said she prayed for a sign that the girl would remember something from her childhood.
Much of the town had been destroyed and rebuilt, but a house that belonged to Jamaliah’s mother had survived. When the girl saw it, memories of eating sweet tropical fruit came back.
“She remembered the chicken coop and the rambutan tree,” Jamaliah said. “She remembered waiting for durian that her grandmother used to give her.”
This was all the sign she needed, and Jamaliah wanted to bring her home with them for good to Meulaboh. She said the foster family was hesitant and asked for a DNA test. The parents agreed, but said they had no money for to pay for it.
Sarwani, the foster grandmother who last cared for the girl, said she later agreed to let her go.
“It turned out that Weniati herself is confident that Jamaliah is her mother and Rangkuti is her father,” she said. “What can I say? I don’t want to impede the reunion of a daughter and her mother.”
In the meantime, Jamaliah was on national television with the girl she was calling her daughter. The exposure caught the attention of Lana Bestir in West Sumatra, who had been feeding a homeless boy for years after he turned up at her Internet cafe.
When a photo of the young siblings taken before the tsunami flashed on the screen, she was shocked. It looked similar to the boy she knew as Ucok. She said she showed him a picture of Jamaliah from the Internet, without giving him any information about her.
“This is my mother. Yes, this is my mother, Liah!” Bestir recalled the boy saying after staring at the photo. “I want to meet her.”
When she got the call, Jamaliah, whose nickname is Liah, wondered: Could a second miracle really be possible? She went to the boy immediately, but he was also hard to identify.
He was much darker than Arif had been, and his forehead also bore a melted scar. Arif had been a top student, but this boy did not know his name and could hardly speak any language. He also had the mentality of a young child.
He remembered washing up on the beach and being taken to live with a family, but he doesn’t know where. He said that one day, when he stayed in bed too long, a woman in the house threw scalding coffee in his face. After that, the street became his home.
“I was sad at first,” Jamaliah recalled. “But then I said, ‘Whatever happened to my son, I’ve been waiting so long, I can be patient and take care of him now.”’