08 August 2014

Ten years after the tsunami, girl's return sparks hope for family

Indonesia Tsunami victim reunited with family - © Achwa Nussa, EPA
Indonesia Tsunami victim reunited with family - © Achwa Nussa, EPA
Indonesia Tsunami victim reunited with family - © Achwa Nussa, EPA
Indonesia Tsunami victim reunited with family - © Achwa Nussa, EPA
An Indonesian teenager reunited with her parents 10 years after she was torn from her father's arms by the 2004 tsunami at the age of 4 and presumed dead has provided one happy ending for one of the country's worst disasters. And the girl is raising hopes of yet one more miracle.

Banda Aceh, Indonesia (dpa) - Raudhatul Jannah and her brother were dead. There was no way the 4-year-old girl could have survived the tsunami that ripped the pair out of their father's arms as it tore across Indonesia in December 2004, killing tens of thousands.

Or so her parents thought.

"We looked for them among bodies, of piles of bodies, but we didn't find them," says her father, Septi Rangkuti, 52. "After one month we resigned ourselves to the thought that they had probably died."  

This week they were proved happily wrong when reports of a mysterious tsunami survivor who bore an uncanny resemblance to their daughter turned out to be the best news they could have imagined: Raudhatul Jannah, now 14, was alive after a decade of being cared for by an elderly woman.

It was beyond anyone's wildest dreams and turned into an event that delighted Indonesia and the world as the news aired nationwide Thursday.

What's more, Raudhatul Jannah (Jannah is her second name, not a surname) held out the hope of more good news. She says she believes her elder bother, Arif Pratama, is also still alive. He was 7 when the tsunami struck.

"I heard he lives on Banyak Islands, but I don't know in which village," she said, referring to a group of sparsely inhabited small islands about 40 kilometres off the western coast of the island of Sumatra. 

"We will look for him on Banyak Island because we believe he is still alive," said the girl's mother, Jamaliah, 42 (who only uses one name, as is common in Indonesia).

This week, the family was happy with their first miracle. They had already met back in June, but officially reunited as a family this week in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh after Jamaliah and Septi traveled from Meulaboh in West Aceh to see their long-lost daughter.

"I'm happy to back with my mother and father again," said Raudhatul Jannah, who appeared to be shy while wearing a pink headscarf and a purple dress.

"I'm also happy I have now a new brother," she said, referring to her parents' 7-year-old son.

Raudhatul Jannah says she does not remember what happened to her after she and her brother slipped from her parents' grasp when the tsunami hit their home in West Aceh. 

Jamaliah tries to jog her memory, but the girl appears to be at a loss for words. 

The Indian Ocean tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake off Sumatra, killed 230,000 people in 14 countries, including 170,000 in Aceh, the northern tip of Sumatra where the family was at the time of the disaster.

"I was holding Raudhatul Jannah and ran with Arif Pratama when suddenly a huge tsunami wave engulfed us," said her father Septi Rangkuti, 52. 

"I found a plank of wood and put her and Arif on it, but minutes later another wave hit and I lost them," he said.

In June, Jamaliah's brother spotted a girl who looked like Raudhatul after an investigation found that she was a tsunami orphan who had been under the care of an elderly woman in Aceh Barat Daya district, which is about 120 kilometres from the spot where Raudhatul Jannah was separated from her parents. 

"When I first saw her I screamed and held her tight," Jamaliah said.

"I instantly knew she was my daughter because there's a strong spiritual bond between a mother and her child," she said. "If anyone is in doubt, I'm ready for DNA tests."

Sarwani, a 62-year-old woman who cared for Raudhatul for 10 years, said her son-in-law found her on the Banyak Islands, about 200 kilometres from West Aceh. She had originally been rescued by fishermen.

Sarwani said she had grown to love the girl as her own daughter.

"I didn't know her parents were still alive," she said. "But I'm happy that she is reunited with her family."