Six years after a powerful tsunami swept more than 200,000 to their death, Titik Yuniarti still clings to hope at least one of her children is alive.
Like other desperate mothers, she has placed ads begging for information in newspapers in western Indonesia and hung fliers alongside others fluttering from lampposts.
Earlier this month, her search almost cost her her life.
The 43-year-old woman raised suspicions when she tried to meet a girl she thought might be her child. Villagers accused her of being a kidnapper and thrashed her and a friend almost to death.
The December 26, 2004, tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean nations, from Thailand to Sri Lanka. Hardest hit by far was Indonesia’s Aceh province, where 164,000 died. Of those, 37,000 were never found, their bodies presumed washed out to sea.
Today, a massive international aid effort has rebuilt tens of thousands of homes, schools and roads. But closure has been much more difficult for some. While most have given up the search for missing children, a number press on.
Yuniarti, who lost her entire family in the disaster, set out earlier this month in search of her middle child, Salwa. The journey was inspired by a dream Yuniarti’s mother had, in which Salwa appeared and said she had been taken in by a family in the town of Langsa in Aceh.
It took seven hours on a bumpy coastal road to get there. Clutching a picture of her curly haired child — who was 6 when she was ripped from her mother’s arms and sucked out to sea — Yuniarti and a friend went from school to school, talking to principals, teachers and students.
They sat down with police and met with neighbourhood leaders, anyone who would listen.
“After three days, we finally met a girl named Febby,” Yuniarti said from her hospital bed, her face covered in bruises, her neck swollen and an intravenous drip dangling from her arm.
“She had the same tumble of black hair, a freckle over her lip,” she said in a soft voice, smiling weakly. “Some people even told me she’d lost her parents in the tsunami and had been adopted. I was still afraid to believe it, but in my heart, I thought, it’s her… it’s really her.”
When they returned the next day, though, a woman who identified herself as Febby’s mother blocked them and demanded to know what they wanted with her only daughter.
A crowd started gathering, quickly swelling to more than 100.
Soon whispers spread that Yuniarti might want to abduct the 12-year-old, maybe even sell her organs, echoing kidnapping rumours that have circulated across Indonesia in recent months.
Some chanted “Hang her! Hang her!” Others torched the building where the two women had been hiding. When they emerged, the mob beat them with heavy sticks and rocks, ignoring warning shots fired by police.
Eventually, officers gathered up Yuniarti’s crumpled body and brought her to a hospital. Her friend was also seriously hurt.
Yuniarti, who also lost her husband, a 3-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, wants a DNA test on the child, saying it could be her last chance.
Febby’s mother, Ainun Mardiah, said she would oblige if it would help end the dispute. Her daughter is so traumatised by recent events, she’s stopped going to school.
“I just feel angry, confused,” the 34-year-old Mardiah said. She moved from Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, to Langsa with her husband and child soon after the tsunami, hoping to start life anew. “I just want this to be over.”
A government programme that reunited nearly 1,600 children with their parents closed in 2006. While officials still offer assistance as needed, the number of requests has dwindled, said Farida Zuraini, who works at the provincial Social Ministry office in Banda Aceh.
Maisarah, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, broke down in tears when asked about her husband and three children, all swept away by the waves.
She said she has given up hope after spending several years visiting orphanages and even travelling hundreds of miles (kilometers) to track down a young girl in a photograph who looked like her daughter — just to make sure they were not alive somewhere.
“The most important thing for me was just knowing the truth,” Maisarah said.
One mother who hasn’t given up is 30-year-old Suryani.
Even a DNA test failed to convince her that 11-year-old Riko Anggara, who appeared on a popular TV talent show, was not her boy.
“When we first saw him singing on television, I screamed to my husband, ‘That’s Rahmat! It’s him!’” she said, pointing to photographs she has of both boys. “Just look at the scars on their faces!”
The story made headlines, but a DNA test proved Rahmat was not her son.
But she and her husband remain unconvinced: They want a redo.