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Ten years after tsunami, Indonesian family reborn

Margie Mason
Associated Press

Meulaboh, Indonesia — 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 4 when a towering wave ripped her away with her 7-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 the 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 8 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 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 550 yards 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 8-year-old son were pulled away by the wave, but somehow they managed to hang on to each other.

Rangkuti put his 7-year-old son and 4-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 neighbors or friends, though some ended up in orphanages, said Bukhari, who uses one name and heads the Aceh provincial Social Affairs Office.

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.

But this summer, Jamaliah’s older brother, Zainuddin, called with stunning news.

He’d 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 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.

After the children were interviewed by police, the village head signed a document saying they belong to Jamaliah and Rangkuti.

Jamaliah said some people question whether their story is true, but none of that matters to them. Even if a DNA test came back negative, she said it would never stop a mother’s love.

“It feels like a reborn family,” she said, smiling. “I sometimes feel like it’s a dream.”