Survivors keep hope for missing

In Indonesia, more than 93,000 people remain unaccounted for after the tsunami.

The last time that Yayuk saw her baby daughter Ananda, she was in the arms of her husband, Zulkifli, as Yayuk and her family were running away from a towering wave in their seaside community in Banda Aceh. Then the wave came, knocked Zulkifli down, and sucked Ananda - and Yayuk's other daughters - away.

But that's where the story of Yayuk and Zulkifli's search begins. Forty days later, a family friend said that a neighbor had rescued Ananda, literally turning the child upside down to get the seawater out. The neighbor didn't know Ananda's family, but handed the child over to someone who said they did know Zulkifli and Yayuk. Nothing has been heard of the child since.

Today, Yayuk has spray-painted a sign on her house asking anyone who finds Ananda to please call her cellphone. She says she knows her child is alive, but she worries that the foster family may have fallen in love with Ananda. She doesn't know if she'll see her daughter again.

"I need a miracle," says Yayuk, who like many Acehnese goes by one name. "She is so small, she cannot speak, so if we don't search for her, she can't find us." She chokes back tears. "I had three daughters, and if I know that one is saved, I need to see her grow up. I need to take care of her myself."

Nearly three months after the Dec. 26 tsunami struck Banda Aceh, and countries from the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Sea, there are still hundreds and possibly thousands of separated families in this battered corner of Indonesia. For every story of reunification that one sees on TV, there are hundreds more advertisements in newspapers and handmade posters on walls that tell a different story, of separation, and the struggle of hope against despair.

The scale of the disaster is so massive that the Indonesian government has handed over the task of tracking and, when possible, reuniting separated children with their families to a handful of international and local humanitarian groups, such as UNICEF, Save the Children, and Mohamadiya.

Aid workers say they now have a system in place to track and register children who have been identified as separated from their parents. But the process is slow by design, aimed to protect the child's interests first, something that may be frustrating to parents who are searching for their children. And yet, with more than a thousand children to place - and more being registered every day - it is important to make sure that every child is placed with their own parents, or the closest living relative, and barring that, then with members of the community where the child was raised.

"It's quite natural in large movements of people, and particularly when people are fleeing, that some children are separated from their parents," says Tirana Hassan of Save the Children, the lead agency in reconnecting separated children with their families.

As of Monday, Save the Children and its partner agencies have registered up to 1,112 separated children who have survived, of whom 60 have been reunited with their families. Save the Children helps parents get weekly information of the names and descriptions of children who are on their database, and if there is enough corresponding information between the parents' description and the child's information, then Save the Children calls the parents back for follow-up interviews. But Save the Children only registers children, not parents.

"We believe that raises false expectations" among parents, says Ms. Hassan, who has served in other conflict and disaster zones.

"We do get spontaneous reunifications," she says. "But the reality is that we do see higher numbers of adolescents. We don't see a lot of children under the age of 5. The older children have survivor's skills. They can swim, or climb, or run to the rooftop of a tall house. The cases where a baby survived are usually when they have been put into a vehicle" and driven to safety.

The spirit that keeps many families searching for their missing children is a heartbreaking mixture of hope and desperation. Survival has given many parents an unyielding commitment to recover as much of their old lives as possible, including the children they were unable to protect from the wave that claimed some 120,000 lives to date in Indonesia. (More than 93,000 are declared missing and presumed dead.)

Perhaps the best place to see that spirit of hope is in the local newspapers, such as the Indonesian-language daily Serambi. In the Serambi offices, senior editor Nurdin Syam turns to page 11, half of which is covered with pictures of missing kids, together with the phone numbers of hopeful parents.

"We print a page like this everyday, and they're different children everyday," says Mr. Syam. Newspaper ads like these are usually a parents' last resort, he adds.

For Zainabon, however, it was a picture in Serambi newspaper that reawakened her hope, long after she had given up on ever seeing her 7-year-old daughter Nissa Ulya again.

At a displaced-persons camp in Banda Aceh's fishing community of Lam Pulo, Zainabon takes a copy of the front page of Serambi's March 2 edition, which has a photo of a little girl. The girl looks to be resting on a military cot, her arm bandaged up. But the face is unmistakably Nissa Ulya's, Zainabon says.

"I know this is her face, I know her eyes, her hair was long before the tsunami, but on the night before the wave, my sister cut her hair short - she's my daughter," says Zainabon, choking back tears.

The one thing that gives Zainabon comfort is the fact that Nissa Ulya is old enough to read. "She's smart, she can read, so if she is helped she can come back home. The only problem is that she may be really hurt." Zainabon becomes quiet, and a neighbor reaches out to hold her hand.

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