Sri Handayani, 16, seems almost giddy skipping around her tiny house and caring for her father and two younger brothers in their village of Sengkomulat. Just four months ago she was still at loose ends in the faraway seaside town of Meulaboh, camping out with relatives but with no clue as to her own family’s fate in the tsunami. In June, UNICEF’s tracing program changed everything for her. Just as she had begun to abandon all hope, Sri was informed that a few members of her family had survived. In a matter of days the family was reunited and life for all of them suddenly began anew.
Sri had moved to Meulaboh, a four-hour journey down Aceh’s west coast, a few weeks before the tsunami. She was going there to attend high school with a cousin. “Unfortunately I moved there right before the Peterpan concert in Banda Aceh,” recalls Sri, referring to Indonesia’s most popular pop band. “I love Peterpan,” she offers, and other types of ‘crazy music’ like Indian Bollywood tunes…”
Sri was at her cousin’s home in Meulaboh when the tsunami arrived. She fled the house and ran from the encroaching waves but got caught in a raging flood. “I remember swallowing a ton of water,” says Sri. “My cousin had a 4-month-old baby boy, but the force of water pulled him loose from her grip and he died...” Sri’s cousin and other nephew survived, but suffered broken limbs. Sri caught up with her cousin later that evening. Together they found shelter at an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp set up behind a local military base. They remained there for two months before moving to a nearby village.
Some four months after the tsunami, Sri’s father, Mohamad Ali, heard a rumor that his daughter was alive, but Sri still had no idea about the fate of her parents and siblings back in Sengkomulat. “To be honest, I had assumed they were dead but prayed they were alive. I still cried every night, or whenever I was alone.” Sri’s prayers were only half-answered. Her mother and older sister were swept away by the waves, while her father and two younger brothers managed to survive.
The reunification happened in Banda Aceh on June 22. Sri arrived by minibus a day earlier, accompanied by two UNICEF staff, Remi and Lukman, who’d been handling her case through the agency’s tracing program. The next day at 10AM she was taken to meet her father at the government Social Services office in Banda Aceh. “I was so thrilled to see him at last,” says Sri, “but I noticed he was much thinner than before.” By early afternoon they set back out to their village, where she was reunited with her little brothers, Wahyudi, 12, and Sukran, 7. “They had both grown so much,” recalls Sri, “I’d only been gone seven months, so I was shocked. But I was so touched, because my baby brother still remembered me…”
Mohamad Ali was similarly thrilled to see his daughter. “I was so happy, but I was crying, too. So much had happened to all of us.”
The next big event for this family is the completion of their new two-bedroom house, which is being constructed right next to the small shack that has served as their interim shelter since returning to the village. Sri has painted the word ‘Love’ on the door of the temporary shack, “As a sign of love for a place that gave us shelter,” she explains.
Mohamad Ali, 49, works as a woodcutter and chopper, and normally makes 50,000 Rupiah (around $5) per day in the forest near the house. Today he is busy helping the construction workers that are building his new house, and proclaims proudly that although they’ve completed the foundations he’s planning to construct the front steps himself, from wood. He also plans to erect a wood fence around the front garden so that Sri has a space to put the plants that she goes out and collects on her own. “Gardening has become my favorite hobby since returning home,” says Sri. “And it going to make our new home more beautiful.”
During our visit Sri is scaling two fish to be cooked in a curry. Along with steamed rice, she says, it will provide them with three meals, right through to the next day. Sri now does all the housework for the family and so hasn’t yet returned to school. “We’re trying to get our new home up and running first,” she says. “Now that mother is no longer with us, I have a lot of responsibility.”
While Sri bravely focuses on rebuilding her family’s life and home, she still feels the absence of her mother every day, and especially that of her older sister, Sukarni, who was 18 when she died in he tsunami. Sri says she and Sukarni were inseparable, “like twins,” and did everything together. Her last memory of her older sister was when Sukarni phoned her to Meulaboh just a day before the tsunami and said, only half-jokingly “Please find a handsome man for me in Meulaboh, because I’m coming to visit you there soon…”