BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — A girl who was swept away in the Indian Ocean tsunami seven years ago said Friday she broke down in tears this week after tracking down her parents, who had long lost hope of finding her alive.
The 15-year-old showed up in Aceh province’s hard-hit town of Meulaboh earlier this week, saying that not long after the wave hit she was “adopted” by a woman who called her Wati and forced her to beg, sometimes beating her and keeping her in the streets until 1 a.m.
When the teen stopped bringing in money, she was told, “Go ahead, leave … go find your parents then, they’re in Meulaboh.”
With only patchy memories about her past — she was only 8 when the tsunami hit, an age where most children don’t know their relatives’ full names — Wati began her search, telling people she thought her grandfather was “Ibrahim.”
She met a pedicab driver in Meulaboh, who brought her to a man by that name. Though she didn’t look familiar, he, in turn, quickly summoned her parents.
“When I saw my mother, I knew it was her,” said the wide-eyed girl, her hair cropped close to her head. “I just knew.”
The family, who say the girl’s original name is Meri Yuranda, is also now convinced.
The Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations hit Aceh — closest to the epicenter of the magnitude-9.1 quake that spawned the towering waves — the hardest.
With tens of thousands of bodies washed to sea in that province alone, many families continue to cling to hope of finding lost loved ones. Reunions, however, are rare. And all announced in the last five years have turned out to be untrue. Even so, some mothers continue to believe a child is theirs even after DNA tests prove otherwise.
Either way, without any challenges to the claims, Wati now has a family.
Yusniar binti Ibrahim Nur, the mother, told The Associated Press she had all the evidence she needed.
“She has her father’s face,” the 35-year-old woman said by telephone. “And when I saw the scar over her eye and mole on her hip, I was even more sure.”
It doesn’t worry her, she said, that the girl and her husband have different accounts of what happened on the day the tsunami hit their tiny village of Ujong Baroh just outside of Meulaboh.
Wati remembers her father putting her into a boat with her younger sister, long presumed dead as well, and then getting separated. She says she remembers being surrounded by water and crying.
Her father says he put both of his daughters on the roof of their house hoping they’d be safe.
“Maybe she fell into the boat, maybe someone helped her. I just don’t know,” said Yusniar.
“I just thank God my prayers have been answered,” she said. “For years, I searched everywhere. I’d really given up.”