Tsunami anniversary: Rebuilding lives in Aceh

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Media captionSome families were torn apart and then brought together again

At first glance, Rina looks like any other 14-year-old Indonesian girl. Shy and cherubic, she's yet to lose the child-like innocence that comes with the territory of teen-hood.

We meet on a Sunday because she's busy studying for exams. Her father Mustafa tells me Rina is one of the top students in her school.

"I always tell her to study very hard. She wants to become a doctor," he said.

"Whatever I do is for her. We only have each other."

Rina and Mustafa survived the tsunami that devastated so much of Aceh, as well as parts of many other countries. Their story is miraculous.

"It was a Sunday and I was sitting with my family that morning when I felt an extremely strong earthquake," Rina said.

"After a few minutes, a rickshaw driver came past our house and started shouting: 'The water is coming in from the ocean to the land! Run!'

Image copyright Fauzan Ijazah
Image caption Rina and Mustafa lost the rest of their family in the devastating tsunami

"We all started running. I held my mother's hand but she was caught in the waves and I was separated from her. When I woke up, I was all alone, surrounded by dirty water and dead bodies."

Rina was only four years old at the time. She was saved by a group of students who handed her over to a family. She said they registered her with British aid agency Save the Children.

She never saw her mother or her older sister again.

Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004


Magnitude quake


People killed - likely more

  • Quake fault line extended 1,500km

  • Rupture lasted about 10 secs

  • Tsunami waves reached 20-30m


More: Images of the devastation then and now

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Before and After: Indonesia's Aceh province was devastated by the tsunami
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In this file photo taken in December 2004, an elderly woman stands in front of her ruined house in Aceh
Image copyright Fauzan Ijazah
Image caption Tsunami waves tore through Mustafa and Rina's home, breaking walls

'Aceh is finished'

Meanwhile, Rina's father Mustafa returned to Aceh from a business trip, two days after the tsunami struck. The memory of what he found is still fresh in his mind.

"There was nothing here," he said, showing me around the old family house. There's a huge hole in the wall where the water gushed through, ripping the concrete.

"I met an army officer on my journey back who told me that Aceh was finished. I'll never forget that.

"When I came home, I thought there was nothing left. That no one had survived. Only me. I walked through the bodies and then found my brother. They said all our families had died."

But what Mustafa didn't know was that his daughter was still alive.

"Dad had taught me from a young age the name of my street, my name, my parents' names, everything," Rina said. "So when the Save the Children people asked me I kept repeating the same thing: my name is Rina, and my father's name is Mustafa. All the time until he found me."

Image copyright SAVE THE CHILDREN
Image caption Mustafa and Rina's reunion after the tsunami proved to be an emotional but happy one
Image copyright SAVE THE CHILDREN
Image caption Mustafa said he did not know Rina's whereabouts after the tsunami struck and whether she was still alive
Image copyright Fauzan Ijazah
Image caption Without help and efforts from aid workers, father and daughter may not have been able to find each other

Save the Children had posted Rina's photograph in many places around Banda Aceh in the aftermath of the tsunami. Almost a month after the disaster, father and daughter were reunited.

Idil Saputra worked with the aid organisation at the time.

"I showed Rina the photographs of four men including Mustafa's. I asked her - which one of these is your dad - and she repeatedly pointed to Mustafa's photo," Mr Saputra said.

"When the two were reunited in our office it was an emotional moment. Mustafa and Rina cried. In fact, we all cried. It was the first of many families we reunited after the disaster."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The boat that ended up on rooftops in Lampulo has become a tsunami memorial


You can't get away from the tsunami in Aceh. Everybody has a story to tell about the day the waves struck.

Not far from the city centre, in the village of Lampulo, is a tsunami shrine. A giant fishing boat sits on top of an abandoned house, the ravaged walls an eerie reminder of how much damage the powerful waters caused.

The spot has become a tourist attraction because of the amazing story behind it.

"This boat was being renovated on the day of the tsunami by the docks nearby," said Saipun, an elderly man at the site who was recounting his tale to a group of Malaysian tourists.

"It was swept a couple of kilometres inland and landed right here, near this house.

"There were 59 people stranded on the roof, convinced they were going to drown in the waves. Then this boat came and they were saved."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Despite massive restoration efforts, tsunami reminders - like these coconut tree ruins - remain

'Not scared any more'

It is a sobering thought, and one that is never far from the minds of those who survived.

But those left behind know the only way they can respect the memories of the dead is by living, and not hiding in fear.

"I was scared. I was scared for a very long time," Rina said. "I always thought I was going to lose my father because I had lost everyone else. But you get over the fear. I'm not scared any more."

Rina has spent the last decade learning to live without her mother and her older sister.

It is still difficult for her to talk about it. But daughter and father have taken comfort in each other, rebuilding their lives together.

"We have rebuilt this house and we're now actually looking to sell this plot," Mustafa said. "With the money that we hopefully make from this, we want to move somewhere else."

Image copyright Fauzan Ijazah
Image caption Rina and Mustafa now have plans in place in case another tsunami comes

'Not to lose each other'

Mustafa has remarried, but speaks emotionally of his first wife.

"I just kept thinking that she and my elder daughter would also turn up, the way Rina did. I kept thinking if a four-year-old could survive, wouldn't they?"

Father and daughter have now developed a system to keep safe, in case there's another disaster.

"There was another earthquake here a few years ago and I was at work. My boss told me - don't go home and check on Rina, it's dangerous! But I told him I had to. And I knew where she would be," Mustafa said.

"I had told her that if there was another big earthquake, get on the motorbike and head to higher ground, to a safe spot we both know. As soon as I could, I went to find her and as I expected, she was there."

"We know how not to lose each other now," Rina said to me, smiling. "We are all we have left."

The lessons learned on that fateful day 10 years ago will live on in Aceh's next generation.

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