Fri, Jan 21, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Joyful reunions all too rare for survivors


A little girl and her older sister share free food on the pavement in Jakarta yesterday after flood waters inundated their house.


The last time Amiruddin saw his shy 7-year-old daughter was three weeks ago when the tsunami snatched her away. But the Indonesian man kept looking for her, and on Wednesday his refugee camp's intercom called him and he got the news: His girl was alive.

When the girl with big brown eyes and short dark hair appeared dressed in a dirty T-shirt and blue pants, the fish trader broke into a smile. He said nothing as he held her in his arms. Other survivors gathered around, gasping and crying at the reunion.

"I want to bring the child to show my wife," Amiruddin, who only uses one name, told the family of rice traders who had given shelter to Putri and about 200 other refugees in their home.

It is unclear how the girl escaped the waves. As flood waters rushed into their house, Amiruddin's wife, Hernini, said she rushed the family to the roof. As the flood waters rose, a utility pole fell between them, and she lost Putri. When the flood waters receded, she searched fruitlessly for her daughter among dead bodies that littered the streets.

Their house destroyed and fearing aid could take days to reach them, the family headed to Banda Aceh.

Like many survivors, Amiruddin and his wife spent their days scanning lists of survivors and dead. They went to makeshift morgues. They handed out posters of their daughter to other relief camps. They heard rumors, chased down leads, hunted endlessly only to come up empty-handed.

They slept at night at a sprawling refugee camp of 4,000 known locally as the TVRI because it was set up on the grounds of a state-run television station.

Camp volunteers were able to match the name given by the fellow survivor with the one Amiruddin had registered with the camp's reunification center. It included details of his daughter -- description, birth date and the family's recollection of what she was wearing Dec. 26.

Back at the refugee camp, Amiruddin followed his daughter on another motorbike yelling that she had been found.

Hernini -- waiting under a tent set up to register missing children -- looked up as her daughter approached. As Amiruddin held her, Hernini cautiously inspected the youngster -- looking to ensure she had the black teeth she remembered, the ears not yet pierced.

Putri whispered something inaudible into her ear and wrote her name in big block letters. When asked who her father was, she pointed to Amiruddin.

Caressing her head repeatedly, the mother of four said she would give her daughter a bath and a haircut back at their tent. Then, it would be a rare day of celebration -- complete with the Islamic feast called selamatan -- for the family that remains homeless and penniless.

Such reunions are rare in Indonesia, where the UN estimates many more women and children died than men. This was only the sixth child at the TVRI camp to be reunited with their parents since the tsunami.

The lack of a centralized database, the presence of dozens of unregulated relief camps and the high death toll have all contributed to difficulties reuniting children with their parents, aid officials say.

The process, though, is improving, with UNICEF on Wednesday setting up two of planned 20 registration and child care centers in relief camps. Aid groups are agreeing on a formula for registering and tracing separated children.

But for now, there are many families still wondering whether their children are alive or dead. Some 900 parents have come looking for their children at the TVRI camp, and they lined up Wednesday to fill out the forms and submit photos.

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