SHAFAQNA – When the wave came, Septi Rangkuti could do nothing as he watched his son and daughter being sucked into the tsunami.He was living in the town of Meulaboh in the Indonesian province of Aceh on Boxing day in 2004 and, like everyone, was taken by surprise as the wall of water arrived. His wife, Jamaliah, made it on to the roof with their oldest son as Mr Rangkuti struggled through the rising water with the two children.
He grasped a wooden door and sat them on it like a raft but the current snatched it away. The last thing he heard was the voices of Arif, seven, and Raudhatul, four, calling for him to save them.
Close to a quarter of a million people died that morning, a decade ago on Friday; 170,000 of them were in Aceh. But Mr Rangkuti and his wife never stopped searching for Arif and Raudhatul. They visited hospitals and refugee camps and picked their way through mortuaries.
Mr Rangkuti sank into lethargy and depression. When his wife’s feelings of loss became too much for her, she would go out and give her son and daughter’s favourite foods to children their own age — bananas for Arif, and rice cakes for Raudhatul.
And then, last summer, when all hope seemed exhausted, came an extraordinary series of events.
First, there appeared a 14-year-old girl, identified by the couple as their lost daughter. A few weeks later came the apparent discovery of Arif, now 17.
As the world prepares to remember the tsunami’s tenth anniversary, the reunion has been reported across the globe as a miracle, a gleaming grain of consolation in the worst natural disaster of the century.
But closer examination reveals something more mysterious — a murky story about the desperate need for happy endings in a world of irreparable loss.
“I always had hope,” said Mrs Rangkuti, in her new home in Sibuhuan, in the province of North Sumatra. “I kept on praying that I would see them, and one day, I heard a voice saying, ‘You shall’.”
Soon after, her brother in Aceh telephoned with remarkable news. In a café in his home town of Blang Pidie, he had seen a girl who reminded him of his niece “Raudha”.
“She looked so dirty, she had scabs on her legs, and I cried when I saw her,” she recalled. “I was crying too much to speak and she was crying too. But my husband said, ‘Do you remember? You remember I put you on the door?’ And she remembered.”
It emerged that Raudhatul had been found by a fisherman on the offshore Banyak islands and ended up living in Blang Pidie with his mother.
The family, who were even poorer than Jamaliah and Septi, at first raised no objection to the Rangkutis’ certainty that this was their daughter, and the girl who had been known for the past ten years as Weniati moved home with them.
The reunion was covered on Indonesian television, including Mrs Rangkuti’s appeal for information about her missing son. In Payakumbuh, another city on the island of Sumatra, a woman observed a resemblance between the photograph shown on screen and a homeless street child who slept in front of her shop.
Within a few days, Mrs Rangkuti was on the scene to claim the boy, known as Ucok, as her son, Arif.
The children’s own memory of their ordeal is imperfect. But the family, in their simple wooden house, appeared delighted to be together; and there is a distinct resemblance between the girl and Jamaliah.
“I remember I was floating, screaming, crying for help, and a man helped me out of the sea along with my brother,” Raudhatul said. “I’m so happy to be united with my family.”
With Arif, the family likeness is less obvious. After eight years of living rough without friends or teachers, his powers of self-expression were limited, and the course of his odyssey from tsunami to the streets is obscure.
Most disturbing are the scars on his forehead and ankle, inflicted, he says, by a mysterious “mother” whose name he cannot recall.
Whatever the truth about their biological relationship, everyone benefits from the new arrangement. Jamaliah and Septi are reprieved from the agony of the loss of their youngest children. The children have a loving and devoted family and no reason to question the story being told about their origins. The rest of Indonesia, and the world, has a happy ending to a story about the deaths of a multitude.
Yet, questions remain. The Banyak islands, where the two were first said to have washed up, are 150 miles from the point where Arif and Raudhatul were swept away: it is inconceivable that two helpless children could have safely sailed there on a door.
More seriously, the family who brought up Raudhatul/Weniati have, for mysterious reasons, changed their account. Far from being an orphan of the tsunami, they are now claiming that the girl is the child of their own extended family. Four months after the allegations were made, Jamaliah and Septi have still not taken the step that would settle the matter beyond doubt — a DNA test.
Mrs Rangkuti explained that this is because of the cost. To pay for the test, she would need the equivalent of more than £600, which is money that her family does not have.
“I am prepared to do the test,” she said. “Because I have no doubt. My conviction is stronger than anything.”
Perhaps some miracles are best left alone by science, for the tranquillity of children, parents, and all the rest of us who remember the horror of that day ten years ago next week.