You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Ten Years After the Tsunami, an Indonesian Couple Says They Found Their Missing Kids. Is It Too Good to Be True?

Dimas Ardian/Getty Images

At 6:00 a.m. on December 26, 2004—two hours before the earth shook and his world began to crumble—a 42-year-old Indonesian man named Septi Rangkuti got out of bed to say his morning prayers. On a weekday, he would have had a breakfast of coffee and rice, and headed to work with his bag of pliers and screwdrivers in one hand and a cigarette in his mouth. This was a Sunday, and Septi had no emergency electrical jobs scheduled. He crawled back under the sheets to doze. Tidur ayam, “chicken sleep,” he called it.

His wife, Jamaliah, went to the well outside to wash clothes. She was 11 years younger than her husband and strong-willed. Her parents having died before she reached her teens, she had helped raise and support her four younger siblings. Now she had three children of her own and a thriving sewing business.

It was a clear, calm morning, and warm—as it always was on the coast of Sumatra, a volcano-studded island that stretches diagonally across the Equator for nearly 1,800 kilometres. The Rangkutis lived in Aceh, the northernmost region, known as the “veranda of Mecca” because it is where Islam was first introduced to Indonesia.

When the travel writer Norman Lewis visited Aceh in 1991, he compared the spectacular scenery along its western flank favourably with the unspoiled parts of the Amazon rainforest. The road was so bad in parts that it seemed to barely exist, Lewis noted in An Empire of the East. The isolation and underdevelopment were due to a separatist rebellion that had claimed thousands of lives. On reaching Meulaboh, which “had lost all those things that hold a good village together, but had never quite turned itself into a town,” the 83-year-old Englishman drew suspicious stares. 

But the Rangkutis were happy there, in their small house painted the colour of the sea. It was in Meulaboh’s downtown area, which funnels into a peninsula shaped like the arched foot of a ballerina. To one side was a bay where men dived for prawns, and wooden fishing boats heavy with shark and tuna slipped in to dock. To the other was the open water of the Indian Ocean.

On days like this the whole family would squeeze on to Septi’s red 120cc Suzuki motorcycle to visit friends and relatives, or to picnic on the beach. None of them could swim but they enjoyed splashing in the small waves.

As Septi napped, Raudha, the four-year-old girl who shared her parents’ room, played with her dolls. Raudha’s nickname was Maktek, which means talkative. Her seven-year-old brother, Arif, who was still sleeping, was known in the neighbourhood as Shaolin, after the Chinese martial art. He liked to climb things—once he fell off the roof and smashed his nose—and to fight with other children. He was especially protective of his brother Zahry, who was a year older but slightly built and shy.

At 7.58 a.m., Septi awoke to feel the ground vibrating violently. He rushed to the next room to rouse Zahry and Arif. Jamaliah picked up Raudha. They ran out the back of the house and sat down beside a store in the alleyway, arms around each other. A neighbour shouted that the shop was cracking so they moved further along just before the building collapsed.

The earthquake lasted for as long as eight minutes. When it stopped, residents closest to the beach noticed that the ocean was retreating. Some ran to pick up the flapping fish stranded on the sand. The Rangkutis, who had stayed seated, afraid of aftershocks, heard distant shouts. “Seawater is coming! Seawater is coming!”

Septi asked Jamaliah: “What kind of water is this that can come on to land?” She did not know, but suggested he fetch his motorcycle from inside the house.

The Ring of Fire is a 40,000-kilometre band of ocean trenches and volcanic arcs on the fringes of the Pacific Basin. Shaped like a horseshoe rather than a circle, it runs from the bottom of South America up to Alaska, across the Bering Sea towards China, and down past Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and New Zealand. Roughly 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur in this zone.

The seismic activity is explained by plate tectonics. The earth’s outer core, the lithosphere, is not one rigid piece but is broken up into seven major and eight minor blocks—imagine the globe as a slightly cracked eggshell. These are not static, but grind against each other like very slow-moving dodgem cars. Plate boundaries occur along the length of the Ring of Fire, including off the west coast of Sumatra. Here, the Indo-Australian Plate, made up of oceanic crust, advances against and under the lighter continental crust of the Sunda Plate by about two inches a year—the speed at which fingernails grow.

Over centuries the stresses at these points accumulate, eventually forcing a rupture. This is what happened on Boxing Day 2004. As the Indo-Australian Plate lurched forward, the Sunda Plate was pushed upwards. The undersea rupture spread at two kilometres a second, eventually extending for 1,600 kilometres. With a magnitude of 9.1, the earthquake was the biggest since 1964. The epicentre was in the Indian Ocean about 95 kilometres south-west of Meulaboh, the nearest town.

Seaquakes can cause great damage on land, but what comes next is often far more dangerous. When the continental crust lifts due to the rupture, the sea floor above it rises, displacing the entire water column on top and creating a tsunami (a Japanese word, meaning harbour wave). In the deep ocean, the waves start as wrinkles, barely noticeable to ships on the surface. But as they move towards land at the speed of a jetliner they become bigger. On reaching shallow water, the trough of a tsunami wave drags along the seabed, slowing it down and causing the crest to rise dramatically.

Septi started the Suzuki motorcycle and they all climbed on: Raudha in front, against the handlebars, then Arif, Septi and Zahry, with Jamaliah at the back. They rode down the street, past the fruit and vegetable market, where the neat piles of melons, papayas, avocados and coconuts lay scattered on the ground. Soon they were stuck. So many people were trying to head inland that a traffic jam had developed.

From the bay came a roar that sounded like an aeroplane taking off. The Rangkutis, standing next to their bike, saw a small wave rushing towards them. Septi managed to keep hold of Arif and Raudha as the water washed past. Jamaliah clutched Zahry against her chest. Then they heard an even louder rumble. The second wave, which came from the opposite side—the direction of the open ocean—was a dark grey wall of water, thick with mud and debris from the houses it had demolished along the way.

Jamaliah and Zahry were swept along for hundreds of metres until they were pushed up against a row of solidly constructed buildings. One of several people sheltering on the roof of a house reached out and grabbed Zahry’s hands, pulling him to safety. As the water swirled, Jamaliah was sucked under. Sure that she was going to die, she said a silent prayer before being coughed to the surface, and hauled up alongside her son. They climbed on to the roof of an adjoining two-storey shop from where they witnessed the approach of the largest wave yet, as tall as the ceiling of a house.

Hours later, when the sea had receded, Jamaliah surveyed the carnage. Bodies floated in pools of dark water. Entire neighbourhoods had been swept away. “I thought, ‘When God does something, it only takes minutes,’” she said. “So why even have possessions and money?”

Though Jamaliah did not know it, Septi lay nearby, dazed, cut and bruised. When the second wave had struck, he struggled to keep hold of Arif and Raudha. Spotting a large piece of timber in the water—it looked like the door of a house—he pulled it close and lifted his son and daughter on top. The third wave ripped the plank from his grasp. “The children were screaming: ‘Father!’” he would recall, sobbing, nearly a decade later.

Septi was powerless in the surging water. As he passed the leafy part of a mango tree he grabbed a branch and clung on. Later he paddled over to an unfinished building and collapsed on the concrete roof. For hours he did not move. “My mind was blank. I could not think about anything, not even my wife or children,” he said. At around 5pm, he saw some people searching the rubble-strewn streets for friends and relatives. He spotted Zahry and Jamaliah and called out to them. The three of them embraced, all crying.

“Please don’t ask about the children,” Septi said. “I lost them from my hands. They now belong to God.”

It would be days before help arrived. Aceh was already one of the least accessible regions in Indonesia. The conflict with the rebels of Gerakan Aceh Merdeka—the Free Aceh Movement—had worsened in recent years. Martial law was declared in 2003, and the area was off-limits to most foreign organisations. Now, the tsunami had washed away the road that ran from the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra, down the west coast. Telephone lines were cut. The people of Meulaboh were alone.

That first night, Septi, Jamaliah and Zahry stayed on the outskirts of town at an Islamic school that had been turned into a camp for the displaced. In the morning, Septi felt ill, too traumatised to move. Jamaliah and Zahry hitched a ride into the centre to search for Arif and Raudha. Soldiers from the local army base were leading the rescue effort, and had wrapped corpses in blankets or placed them under corrugated iron sheets. Whenever they came across a small body, Jamaliah would uncover it to look at the face while Zahry shut his eyes. For three days they visited hospitals, makeshift clinics and shelters where survivors had gathered. On the fourth day, Septi joined the search, but they had no luck. When they were able to reach the spot where their home had stood they found no trace of their old lives; no piece of clothing, toy or kitchen utensil remained.

Hope of finding survivors was dwindling but the Rangkutis were not ready to give up. They travelled to the town of Blangpidie, two hours’ drive south, to fetch a photograph of Arif and Raudha from Jamaliah’s half-brother and then made another round of the temporary camps and medical tents. Nobody had seen the children.

In desperation, Jamaliah and Septi consulted a fortune-teller, an elderly man who claimed to be able to find missing persons by examining a heart-shaped leaf cut from a betel vine. He told them that their children were in a place “where the sun rises,” and suggested they look in a town several hours’ drive south-east. If Arif and Raudha were not found within a week somebody would take them away from that area, the seer said. Septi hired a car and they set off immediately. They found no trace of the children.

After six weeks of searching, the Rangkutis decided to leave Meulaboh. They had no home and no possessions. They wanted to get away from the sea. And so, in late February 2005, Septi, Jamaliah and Zahry departed for Septi’s parents’ village in the mountains, 500 kilometres away.

The Indian Ocean tsunami was the deadliest in history. Nearly 230,000 people died or were missing, presumed dead, in 14 countries, including Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. But Indonesia was by far the hardest hit, accounting for 167,000 of the victims. By some estimates, more than two-thirds of those killed were women, children and the elderly; men had a greater chance of surviving in the water because they were stronger.

Aceh’s coastal infrastructure was ruined: more than 110,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, along with 3,000 kilometres of road, 11 airports, 14 seaports, 120 bridges, 2,000 school buildings and eight hospitals. The international response to the disaster was unprecedented. Millions of people donated to emergency charity appeals. Governments and NGOs pledged $14bn, more than enough to cover the cost of reconstruction in all the affected countries, according to a report by the Asian Development Bank Institute.

Without peace, however, no effective reconstruction would be possible in Indonesia. Though the Free Aceh Movement had declared a ceasefire the day after the tsunami, the army had not. But in January 2005, government and rebel representatives met for talks. That August, a deal was signed to end the 29-year conflict, which had cost at least 15,000 lives. The rebels disarmed and Aceh was granted autonomy and allowed to keep a majority share of its natural resource revenues. With the peace holding, and $7 billion in aid flowing into the region, rebuilding commenced.

For the Rangkutis, now living far from any government assistance, help had come from their new neighbours. In two days, they built the family a three-metre-by-four-metre house with a log frame, an iron-sheet roof and walls made from wooden planks and an old ping-pong table. It had one room and a dirt floor.

To earn money, Jamaliah cooked noodles in the market. But Septi fell into a deep depression. For four years he did not work. “My father just stayed at home all day,” said Zahry. “It was very sad to see him like that.” Only in 2009, two years after Jamaliah had given birth to a third son, named Jumadil, did the old Septi begin to re-emerge.

He and Jamaliah tried to keep the memory of Arif and Raudha alive. If they had spare cash, Jamaliah would cook lontong—rice boiled inside a banana leaf and served in small cakes—which Raudha had loved. Dessert was bananas, Arif’s favourite fruit. “We had never been able to give the children a funeral, but each year [on December 26] we would hold a ceremony. Make some food, read the Quran,” Jamaliah said.

As Zahry moved into his teens, and devel­oped a love of poetry, he found another way to remember the lost siblings:

In the cold of the night,

I see beautiful faces at the corner of my room,

My brother and sister,

They are somewhere unknown,

I do hope one day we will meet again, but when?

In June this year—nearly a decade after the tsunami—Zahry graduated from high school. He had applied to two universities and was asked to travel to Medan, the biggest city in Sumatra, on the island’s eastern side, to sit the entrance examinations. So he was not at home when his father’s phone rang on June 28.

It was Jamaliah’s half-brother, Zainuddin Jamuluddin, who had given her the photograph of the missing children after the tsunami. “Septi,” he said. “I have a found a girl who looks like your daughter Raudha.” 

Zainuddin, who is 59, with short hair and a long moustache, was still living in Blangpidie, the coastal town near Meulaboh. On the night of 24 June this year, he had a disturbing dream. “A girl came to me, calling me Papa, and sat on my lap,” he would later recall. “As she sat there, one of her hairs slowly fell from her head to the ground.” When he woke up he worried that something had happened to one of his daughters, but they were fine.

Three days later he walked to the main road to buy mobile-phone credit and stopped at a coffee stall. Three schoolgirls were walking down the road. It was the last day of the school year, and they were clutching their reports. One of them, a girl named Weni, came over to say hello to the stall owner. Zainuddin had never seen the girl before and asked who she was. “She is a tsunami orphan from the Banyak Islands,” the proprietor said, referring to a cluster of 99 small islands in the Indian Ocean, about 250 kilometres from Meulaboh.

According to Zainuddin, something extraordinary then happened. “One of the girl’s hairs fell down from her hijab, just like in my dream,” he said. “My heart started beating fast.” He rushed home to tell his wife what had occurred. She suggested they find the old photograph of Raudha and Arif, which the Rangkutis had borrowed shortly after the tsunami when looking for the kids. In the picture, Raudha was wearing pink sandals, a white sleeveless frock, red lipstick and a silver tiara inlaid with green and purple plastic jewels.

Zainuddin showed it to one of his cousins, who lived in the same part of town as Weni. The cousin said that when Weni had arrived in the area around eight years before, she had resembled the girl in the photograph. Zainuddin gathered more information about Weni. A fisherman named Mustamir Zai had brought her to the town after travelling to the Banyak Islands to dive for sea cucumbers, a delicacy in Asia. The girl had lived with Mustamir, his wife and their three sons in Blangpidie for about two years. When the family moved to Medan, on the opposite coast, Weni stayed behind with Mustamir’s sister-in-law.

The sister-in-law then also relocated to another part of Sumatra. Weni was placed in the care of Mustamir’s mother-in-law, a widow who spent her days in Blangpidie collecting cockle clams in an estuary, and plastic bottles from the beach to sell to recyclers. Details of Weni’s life before 2006 were less clear. She never talked about it, responding to questions about family with a blank-faced look. According to the old woman now looking after her, the girl could not recall her own name when she arrived from the islands. “Weni” was a name given to her on the mainland.

Zainuddin’s phone call did not excite the Rangkutis. Though they had never entirely given up hope of finding their missing children, it had been nine and a half years since the tsunami. And Weni was in class four, meaning she had another two years of primary school to go. By now, Raudha would have been 14, and in year one or year two of secondary school.

But then Zainuddin phoned again, imploring them to take the matter seriously. He promised to send a photograph of the girl taken using his daughter’s smartphone. Septi and Jamaliah studied the image. They were astounded – and elated.

“The girl in the picture looked like me,” Jamaliah said. “I had this strong feeling that this was my daughter. I asked God: please give me the strength to face this situation.”

The Rangkutis had no money to travel to Blangpidie, but as the news spread through the village, people chipped in. A few days later, they boarded a night bus.

After a journey of 12 hours they reached Medan, where they picked up their son Zahry, who cancelled his university admission tests. That evening they set off again, travelling through the night, across the mountains, from one coast of Sumatra to the other. They chatted anxiously about Raudha: how would they know whether the girl in Blangpidie was really her? Their initial concern—that Weni was not in the correct grade—had been eased. It turned out she had twice repeated a year of school. Zainuddin and others in Blangpidie had convinced themselves that Weni had been rescued in the sea after the tsunami by a relative of the fisherman Mustamir, and taken to the Banyak Islands.

Zainuddin’s house has two large living rooms facing the street, with orange walls and pressed ceilings. Jamaliah sat in one, and Septi and Zahry in the other. On arrival, Weni walked towards Jamaliah to shake her hand. Jamaliah hugged her. “My daughter, my daughter,” she said, starting to cry. Septi joined in the embrace. Zainuddin began to cry as well. The girl—whom I will call Raudha from here on—showed little emotion: she was neither joyful nor uncomfortable.

News of the reunion quickly reached Medan, where Mustamir—the fisherman who had brought Raudha to Blangpidie—was furious. He phoned Jamaliah and insisted that the child was never caught up in the tsunami, and was not from Meulaboh. She was the orphaned daughter of one of his cousins from the Banyak Islands.

The Rangkutis asked Mustamir and his wife to travel to Blangpidie so they could discuss the matter, and agreed to their request to cover their transport costs. In the event, Mustamir’s wife came alone. At a tense meeting, mediated by elders from Blangpidie and Meulaboh, it was agreed the Rangkutis could take Raudha back to Meulaboh, as long as a DNA test was done to determine if the girl was their child.

One matter remained unresolved. The tests would cost $1,000, a sum beyond the means of both parties. When the Rangkutis reported to the police in Meulaboh the following day—August 9—officers said they would carry out the DNA test for free, but only if somebody formally contested the family’s claim for custody over Raudha. Mustamir’s wife had returned to Medan, and she and her husband seemed reluctant to involve the authorities. No complaint was registered.

At this point, news agencies picked up the story of the seemingly miraculous reunion. I read it in a UK newspaper and was intrigued: could it be true? And there was a twist. If Raudha had been saved in the ocean, then what about Arif? Jamaliah said that she asked Raudha about this, and that Raudha told her that she had lived with a brother for a short time in the Banyak Islands. Jamaliah informed reporters that she planned to look for Arif there. For now, the DNA test was ignored.

On August 10, a 30-year-old housewife named Lana Bestari was watching the evening television news when she saw Jamaliah speaking about the search for her missing son. Lana lived inland, in a city called Payakumbuh—“grassy swamp”—in the middle of Sumatra, around 450 kilometres from the Banyak Islands. Something about Jamaliah’s face made her pause. With her BlackBerry, Lana took a picture of the TV screen. I need to talk to Ucok, she thought.

Ucok was the boy whom her husband had found sleeping outside the family’s internet café one morning in 2007. The kid wore tattered clothes and had a large wound on his forehead. Lana’s husband invited him in, and gave him food. The boy could not speak Indonesian well, or the local dialect, and did not know his name. But he was able to explain that somebody had poured boiling water on his head, and that he had arrived the night before from Medan. Lana’s husband christened him Ucok, a popular name in that city.

Ucok stayed in Payakumbuh, sleeping rough and begging on the streets. He often visited the cybercafé or Lana’s house to ask for food or money. She and others tried to register Ucok in school, but he refused all offers of help beyond his immediate needs, Lana said.

Now, seven years on, Ucok was in his late teens. His body was strong, his skin dark, and his hair hung over his ears. He was still homeless. When he passed Lana’s house on August 11, she said that she wanted to show him a photograph.

“I did not tell him that it was of a woman looking for a missing son from the tsunami,” Lana later recalled in a phone interview. “Ucok stared at the picture for a moment and then said ‘Ma.’ At first I did not believe it, so I asked him what his mother’s name was. He said ‘Liah.’” Liah is short for Jamaliah, and is a name used by some of her friends to address her. Lana probed more: “I said, ‘OK, where are you from?’ and he replied that he was from Aceh. I asked him why he was here.”

Ucok began to cry. “There was a big wave,” he replied, according to Lana. She contacted a television journalist in Payakumbuh, who took photographs of Ucok and sent them to his colleague in Meulaboh. That reporter arrived at the Rangkutis’ home with his computer. Looking at Ucok’s scowling face on the screen, Jamaliah was unconvinced. But then she saw another one of him on his haunches, his feet splayed—the way Arif used to sit. Remembering that her son had fallen off the roof as a young boy, Jamaliah called Lana and asked if Ucok had a small scar on the right side of his nose. “Yes” was the answer.

The next day, when Ucok came to Lana’s house, she put him on speakerphone and called Jamaliah. On hearing her voice, Ucok said: “Ma, please come and take me. I want to go back to Aceh.” Jamaliah asked where he was staying, and Ucok replied that he had no home, not even a blanket.

“If I had wings, I would have flown there immediately to get him,” Jamaliah said.

At 3:00 a.m. the following day she, Septi and the three children drove in a rental car to Payakumbuh. On arriving 24 hours later, they received bad news from Lana: Ucok was missing. He usually slept near the main market but was not there. With help from the police, Lana searched frantically around the city. Finally, at noon, he was found near a graveyard, where he had spent the night after an argument with another boy. He was waiting at Lana’s house when the Rang­kutis arrived, and ran to embrace Jamaliah and Septi. According to Jamaliah, his first question to them was: “How is my bicycle?” (Arif had a bike as a young boy.) They had lunch, with Ucok sitting on Jamaliah’s lap as she fed him rice. He told Lana he was ready to leave Payakumbuh. “He said: ‘I have found my family and am happy now,’” Lana recalls. “It was the clearest statement he had ever made to me.”

That evening, the Rangkutis drove to Meulaboh. Ucok brought with him nothing except the clothes he was wearing—he had no possessions. But he had a new name that was perhaps an old one, too: Arif.

In late October I arrived in Banda Aceh, the city worst affected by the Boxing Day disaster in terms of fatalities and physical damage. It has been completely rebuilt, though some of its main tourist attractions still recall that day: a $7 million tsunami museum and a fishing boat that came to rest on top of a house.

A new west coast highway had been constructed using donor money. As we set off towards Meulaboh early the next morning, my driver proudly remarked that it was now the best road in Indonesia. Soon it began to wind up steep hills thick with trees. Far below stretched pale sand beaches and an azure sea dotted with tiny islands. In the distance, grey-blue mountains lost their tips to the clouds. On descending, the road tracked the coastline, bisecting paddy fields where farmers stood knee-deep in water.

After five hours we reached Meulaboh, a town marked by its numerous mosques, their giant onion domes the colour of liquorice, copper, emeralds and polished silver. Downtown, the new houses are small and packed tightly together, as before the quake. On the main street, close to the mango tree that Septi clung to in 2004, and which still stands, are buildings several storeys tall, and restaurants, jewellery shops and clothing stores. Almost all traces of the devastation are gone.

For evidence of the disaster you must head towards the end of the peninsula—on top of the ballerina’s big toe—where there are mass graves. One of them, overgrown with yellow and pink wildflowers, overlooks the ocean. Opposite is a larger site, where 2,000 people are buried.

Since July the Rangkutis had been staying in a two-bedroom house just 50 meters or so from the site of their old home. When I arrived, at around midday, Septi was out working, but Jamaliah offered a warm greeting, and went to make some coffee in the kitchen. The living room was unfurnished except for an old television, a crockery cabinet filled with clothes and a mat decorated with cartoon cats.

Zahry keeps a teenager’s hours and was still sleeping. Raudha, dressed in shades of green, with bright orange nail varnish, played games on a mobile phone. Arif—like the Shaolin of old—was playfighting outside with Jumadil, who is seven.

After Jamaliah returned with cups of coffee, she brought out a plastic bag filled with papers. In one of the envelopes was an X-ray of Arif’s skull. The large scar on his head had made Jamaliah worry that there was some permanent damage beneath, but the scan showed none. She then pulled out a letter from the police in Payakumbuh, stating that Arif had been “handed over to his biological parents.” Jamaliah had enrolled him in a special needs school; he was 17 but had not had any education for at least seven years. On the first day of class he walked home on his own instead of waiting to be picked up—causing a brief panic that he might have run away. He appeared to be settling in, though Jamaliah said it would take a long time for him to adjust to family life. “He still needs a lot of love and care from us.”

She also had a police letter about Raudha, stating that a “missing child tsunami victim had been found.” Jamaliah said that for the first few days they were together she could not be certain that Raudha was her daughter. The only way to eliminate any concerns—both among the Rangkutis and among others following the case—would have been a DNA test, but Jamaliah and Septi had not pushed for one. Now, after a few months together as a family, did she have any lingering doubts? “We are 100 percent sure that both children are ours,” she said firmly.

Septi arrived home in the evening, carrying his tools in a polythene bag. He is a gentle, softly spoken man with wispy hair and a sparse, grey-flecked goatee. He wept several times when talking about the tsunami. As Jamaliah had done, he said he was willing to take Raudha for a DNA test, if the police demanded it. But he did not see it as necessary: “two miracles” had occurred, he said, and his biological children were now home.

Nobody who knew the Arif and Raudha before the tsunami questioned this, he added. “You have heard the story about Raudha, how she did not talk much [in Blangpidie]. And about how Arif was. Now look at them: king and queen of the house.”

In the three days I spent with the Rangkutis, Raudha was outgoing and relaxed and seemed content. Unlike before, she seemed happy to talk about what she could recall of her past. Raudha had no memory of her early life in Meulaboh, or of the tsunami. Her oldest recollection was of living in the Banyak Islands with an old woman. “Arif was there, but only for a few days,” she told me. She remembers some villagers telling the fisherman Mustamir, after she had been brought to Blangpidie, that he should tell people the truth about her: “that I was a victim of the tsunami.”

Arif, too, had undergone a transformation. In Payakumbuh he had seemed feral. He smoked and answered to no one. Now, he called Jamaliah “Ma”, asked her what clothes he should wear and helped to clean the house. But his behaviour was still erratic and at times disruptive—jumping around the living room, tossing a neighbour’s food containers into the bushes. Strangers were greeted warily. With Jamaliah’s assistance, I tried to interview Arif a few times, with limited success. He spoke quickly, and with a slight stutter, and after a minute or two would get up and walk away.

He said he could remember the house in which he had grown up in Meulaboh, and the disaster. “There was an earthquake, and many houses were destroyed.” Arif had no memory of being rescued, of the Banyak Islands, or of his life from 2005 to 2007, the time he arrived in Payakumbuh. But he said that when the family came to meet him in August, he had recognised Zahry, and on seeing Raudha had thought: “My sister has grown up!” He said: “I am happy now living with my family. Sometimes Raudha and Jumadil disturb me. But I love them.”

One morning I drove to Blangpidie to meet Jamaliah’s half-brother, Zainuddin. He recounted how he had found Raudha: the dreams, the emotional calls to Septi and Jamaliah, the heated meetings in the village. He had no doubts that the girl was his long-lost niece. “I am very sure about that!” he said smiling. “One thousand percent.”

Of Arif, too, he was certain: the boy had recognised him when they saw each other in August, calling him “Baba”, just as he had before the tsunami. Zainuddin believed that Mustamir was not telling the truth about Raudha’s origins, and that he must also have known about Arif. “If I meet Mustamir again, I would like to punch him,” he said. He agreed that if Mustamir insisted on a DNA test for Raudha—and if the police agreed to fund it—it should be done. “But if the tests prove that Raudha is Jamaliah and Septi’s daughter, then the police must investigate what had happened to her and Arif all these years,” Zainuddin said.

He was much more conciliatory towards Mustamir’s mother-in-law, who was called Sarwani, and had cared for Raudha most recently. He asked his daughter to fetch Sarwani, a small, stooped woman with a deeply lined face, from her house close to the beach. Sarwani sobbed when explaining how she had tried her best to feed and clothe Raudha. They had even slept on the same bed, on a yellow sheet with pictures of teddy bears. “I will always remember her,” Sarwani said. “But it’s like she’s forgotten me.” Though Sarwani did not mention the tsunami—only that Raudha was an orphan—she said she was happy that the child had found her parents.

In the evening, Zainuddin took me to the coffee shop where he had first seen Raudha. He wanted me to meet a former local commander of the Free Aceh Movement called Rusmadi. (Like some other Indonesians, he uses a single name.) Rusmadi arrived on a motorcycle, a handsome, clean-shaven man wearing a polo shirt, jeans and black ankle boots.

He explained that he was a relative of Mustamir’s wife—his own late wife was her first cousin – and had met Raudha soon after she arrived from the Banyak Islands around 2006. Back then, Rusmadi was told that Raudha was an orphan but still had relations on the islands. As time passed, he wondered why no relatives came to visit her. “In our tradition, this should not happen,” he said. He was also annoyed when Raudha was passed among Mustamir’s relatives rather than being sent back to the Banyak Islands to live among her extended family there. Two other things had made him suspicious. About three years ago, Rusmadi said, he had seen Raudha arguing with a boy who, in an attempt to insult her, called her a “tsunami victim.” Rusmadi said he had heard Raudha’s reply: “Yes, I am, and you should respect me because of that.”

Then, in May 2013, a tall, pale-skinned fisherman named Gaipe, who lived on Nias Island, south of the Banyak Islands, came to visit him. Gaipe was Mustamir’s brother. Thirteen years earlier, in a case of mistaken identity, a group of rebels had captured Gaipe. Rusmadi, who led 29 fighters, had helped get him released. Gaipe had now come to say thanks.

“He then asked me: ‘How is the condition of the tsunami victim that my brother brought here?’” Rusmadi told me. “He explained that he was the one who had rescued Raudha at sea, along with her brother, and had taken them to the Banyak Islands.”

At the time Rusmadi did not pay too much attention; he assumed the girl’s parents were dead. Only after Septi and Jamaliah arrived in the town to look for their daughter this year did he begin to tell the story. And though Mustamir was family, he was firmly on the Rangkutis’ side over their claim for custody of Raudha. “People here are afraid of me because I speak the truth,” Rusmadi said.

He still wanted DNA tests done, in order to settle the matter. But his mind was already made up. He banged his right index finger on the table several times, and said: “This was a miracle.”

Mustamir was packing for a five-day fishing trip when I called him in Medan. He sounded irritated—perhaps at the questions, or because he was in a rush—but we spoke for 15 minutes. There was no miracle, he said. Raudha’s mother was his first cousin. Both she and her husband became ill and died before the tsunami, leaving their three children to be raised by their maternal grandmother in Ujung Sialit, a village on Tuangku, the largest of the Banyak Islands. To ease the burden on her, Mustamir agreed to take Raudha to live with his family in Blangpidie. What about Arif? “I have never heard of him,” he said.

Since he was heading to sea, Mustamir said I could get further details from his wife, Sari Dewi. I drove back to Banda Aceh, flew to Medan and caught a taxi to nearby Belawan, a grubby port. Narrow concrete causeways connected rows of wooden homes built on stilts above a slick of mud and sewage. Sari, Mustamir, and their three boys rented a small room in a shared house.

Sari, a feisty 32-year-old, and I sat in the communal living room. She said that Raudha had been born on Nias Island and that her name from birth was Weni Ati. The girl had a younger brother who lived there with a great-uncle, and a sister who was still being cared for by her grandmother on the Banyak Islands.

“When Mustamir called me [from the Banyak Islands] to ask if he could bring a girl to live with us I said it was OK, because we only had sons,” Sari said. “Her grandmother told us no one would try to find the girl, and that she could be our daughter.”

Sari seemed mystified that people in Blangpidie believed that Raudha had lost her parents in the 2004 disaster. “No one ever spoke of her being a tsunami orphan,” she said. Sari’s decision to leave Raudha behind in 2010 when moving to Medan was a practical one: her sister needed someone to look after her baby for a few hours a day while she worked. “It was sad, because she [Raudha] had been with us, but it was no problem to leave her with my sister.” (Contacted by phone in the central Aceh town when she now lives, Sari’s sister gave a similar account of Raudha’s background.)

Sari saw the Rangkutis as fantasists. “The tsunami was nearly ten years ago. If a child has been missing that long it is impossible that she is still alive. Then I heard that they found the boy just a few days later. It’s a bit ridiculous!”

Asked about her relations with Rusmadi, the former rebel commander, Sari said he was like a brother to her. But when she heard what he had said about Mustamir’s brother Gaipe rescuing Raudha and Arif, Sari frowned and said Rusmadi’s account was untrue. DNA testing would prove she was right, she insisted, but she appeared unsure how to proceed. As Mustamir had done, she said that taking the case to the police required money, even if the tests were free. (“And I am just a poor fisherman,” Mustamir told me on the phone.)

What Sari wanted was to bring Raudha to live with her in Medan, far away from Blangpidie and Meulaboh. “If we had done this when we moved here this would never have happened,” she said.

I cross-checked Sari’s story with two people on the Banyak Islands, including a 19-year-old brother of Mustamir’s and a village chief. Both said that Raudha was one of three children. But the brother said that Raudha’s siblings were eight and four, meaning they would have been born only after she had left for Blangpidie. And the chief said that Raudha’s parents were divorced, not dead.

Gaipe, who had allegedly rescued Raudha at sea, was proving elusive. With help from Nurdin Hasan, an Acehnese journalist who had followed the story since August and was my fixer and translator, I tried phoning him several times, but he was away, fishing. Finally, at the beginning of December, six weeks after my trip to Indonesia, Nurdin reached Gaipe by phone on Nias Island. Gaipe said he knew Rusmadi, but denied ever being detained by the rebels, or saving any children after the tsunami. It was true that Raudha’s father was dead, but not her mother, who had remarried and now lived on Nias Island, Gaipe said. This was at odds with what Mustamir and Sari had told me.

Taken together, the inconsistencies were troubling, as were other details from the interview with Sari. Though she had been Raudha’s guardian for a few years, she did not know the child’s day or month of birth, nor the names of her siblings, nor even of her father. When I asked if there were any papers to prove Raudha’s identity, Sari said the girl’s grandmother had a birth certificate, though she had never asked to see it.

If believing the Rangkutis’ story of how Raudha survived required a large leap of faith, then so did the account of her background provided by Sari, Mustamir and their relatives.

One other thing bothered me about the Rangkuti family: the behaviour of the eldest son, Zahry. Though courteous, he was a sullen presence around the house, spending most of the time in his room, or sitting silently in the corner. When the other family members laughed—usually at one of Arif’s pranks—he seldom joined in.

I wanted to talk to him alone, so we walked to a coffee shop squeezed between a tire dealership and a motorcycle garage. Zahry spoke softly, recounting in detail what had happened on the day of the tsunami, and after. Asked if he resented having to postpone going to university for a year, he replied: “That’s no problem. The important thing was to find my brother and sister.”

He was certain they had. He now saw it as his role to assist them, and Arif espe­cially, in adjusting to their new life. The silence was a lesson, Zahry said, and he seemed sincere.

“When Arif is naughty, I stay quiet. This is to show Arif that I don’t approve and that this is not the way to act. He never had love and attention. This behaviour is to get attention from his mother and father. I will teach him to be a good boy.”

Septi and Jamaliah were eager to return from Meulaboh, where they had lived for several months while looking for their children, to their house in the mountains of north Sumatra. If they did, the chances of DNA tests being conducted on Raudha would become even more remote.

The Rangkutis left Meulaboh on November 11, after I had departed. We may never know whether the two children in their custody are Arif and Raudha.

Does it matter? Arif is surely better off with the Rangkutis than he was on the streets. No long-lost relative has come forward to claim him. And he is nearly 18, and able to make his own decisions. Raudha’s situation is more complicated. But given that she was passed on to a new “guardian” three times in eight years, she may benefit from having a stable family. By all accounts, and from what I witnessed, both children were happier now than before being “found”—which seemed a testament to the power of parental love, whether biological or not.

Supporting the expanded family will not be easy, as Septi acknowledged: “We were four people, now we are six.” The Rangkutis have little money, and although they have indulged the interest from local media, they do not appear to have tried to cash in on their story. During my visit an interview request arrived from a television talk show called Hitam Putih—“Black and White”—hosted by a popular Indonesian illusionist.

The producers bought the family tickets on a budget airline to fly to Jakarta to record the programme. The taxi taking them from Meulaboh to the airport in Banda Aceh would arrive at midnight. At dusk, Raudha spread a rectangle of cloth on the floor to serve as an ironing board, plugged in an old electric iron and began pressing clothes to be worn on the show. Zahry soon took over, and then Arif and Jumadil had their turns. As the muezzins’ calls washed over the town, I went to buy takeaway meals from a roadside stall: nasi goreng—fried rice—with a crumbed chicken drumstick and boiled egg, wrapped in a banana leaf and brown wax paper. We sat crossed-legged on the floor. Arif ate twice as fast as anyone else, and gobbled all the green chillies that were too fiery for the rest of us. He noticed with glee that Jumadil had a large hole in the crotch of his trousers—and nothing underneath—sending the whole family, even Zahry, into laughter.

First to fall asleep, at around 9:00 p.m., was Raudha, sprawled in front of the television. Jumadil retrieved a pink pillow from the bedroom and lay down beside her. Arif, who had bathed and got dressed in a smart, short-sleeved checked shirt and black trousers, joined them, and dozed off, too. Chicken sleep. Zahry was in the bedroom writing poetry. It was 10.30 p.m. and the night was quiet. Septi and Jamaliah watched over their children.

This article originally appeared on