Reuniting families after the tsunami

Even six months after his life changed, Pak Bakir’s days begin essentially the same. He wakes before dawn and spends his morning in the cornfields. His wife would often have coffee waiting for him. Now that he’s a single father of five, his children pitch in where they can. His 13-year-old son prepares the coffee today.

Rivaldi knows his father takes his coffee with a little sugar. But, overenthusiastic in his motions, he heaps sugar into the mug. His father brings the cup to his mouth, wincing as he swallows.

Too sweet. He takes a second sip anyway.

“My son made this coffee for me,” he explains. “I will drink every last drop.”

He knows to take nothing for granted. For three days after the earthquake, he didn’t know if Rivaldi was alive or dead. His son was one of an estimated 300 children thought to be separated from their families in the days and weeks after the dual disasters, more than 100 children would later be registered as missing.

Even as he frantically searched for his son, he tried to process the loss of his wife. The Palu Nomoni Festival – a popular, traditional music festival – was being held that day on Talise Beach, the exact point where the tsunami made landfall. She was working in the marketplace along the coast, selling corn from the harvest. The next day, Bakir told his children to accept their mother was gone. Her body has never been recovered.

In the Palu Social Office, one-hundred and eighteen missing children reports are stored in binders. A six-year-old girl last seen walking to the markets. Siblings assumed to be at home at the time of the earthquake.

UNICEF NZ/2019/ETHAN DONNELLRivaldi (13) and his father, Pak Bakir, stand in the family home in Palu, Central Sulawesi.

Where are these children?

The most likely scenario is that many perished in mudflows following the earthquake as a result of liquefaction. The liquefaction swallowed entire villages, thousands of people. Shortly after the disasters, Indonesian flags were hoisted in the mud, marking spots where bodies were entombed. Six months later, these flags are ragged and torn, the bodies buried beneath still yet to be retrieved.

Reuniting families

Pak Febraldi Etgan is a section chief for the Ministry of Social Affairs. Much of his work since the earthquake has involved tracing missing children.
The work, he says, is complicated by the practice of undocumented mass burials. Such burials were carried out frequently without names or physical criteria for later identification being noted down.

He says missing children cases could remain open “indefinitely”.

Social worker Kina Sidik says she still receives phone calls most days from the parents of missing children. Trapped between grief and hope, they still believe their lost children might someday come home.

“I understand that all they need is confirmation whether their child is alive or dead.”

Sidik says that she consoles parents, often encouraging them to turn to prayer, and tries to give them strength. Then she corrects herself. “In fact, it is them who give me strength,” she says. “And I know, in my heart, that we will keep doing our best to find their children.”

During these six months, that hard work has resulted in 47 children being reunited with their families.

The family tracing and reunification programme – a collaboration between UNICEF Indonesia and the Social Ministry of Palu – uses an online platform, Primero, to automatically match unaccompanied children with physical descriptions and other data held in missing children reports.

Fifty-six social workers have now been trained by UNICEF to enter data on Primero, both its web and mobile versions. They input the missing child’s name, gender, date of birth and address, as well as parental information, and a short chronology of how child and parent were separated.

When a match is made, social workers split into two teams – one team meeting with the parents, the other team with the child – to verify the match.

“Every time I see a child reunited with their family, it means a lot to me,” says Sidik. “In that moment, I feel like I am part of their family.”

Rebuilding lives

Bakir helps Rivaldi corner a chicken, who – having eluded the teenager’s grasp – runs amok among the tombstones. The two of them circle like predators, closing in slowly. Bakir pounces on the chicken, handing the captured bird to his son. Rivaldi holds him by the legs, stroking the tufts of feathers.

Social worker Chi Ramadhani watches on. She has seen Rivaldi a few times since she helped reunite the boy with his family, psychosocial support in the form of follow up appointments is an important part of the reunification process. Today he seems different.

“I see him having a joke with his father, laughing together. It’s a good sign,” she says.

“When I first met him, he seemed afraid to meet new people. He would only say one or two words.”

Rivaldi had been walking with friends, on his way to get a haircut when the earthquake hit. His younger sister also went missing, but was found the next day. Three other siblings were at the family home during the quake. In the immediate aftermath, the boy and his friends were picked up by a police officer and taken to an evacuation centre.

Because Rivaldi was a little older, he was able to tell social workers his family name and roughly where he lived. Chi visited Bakir and was quickly able to verify the information. The very next day, the boy returned home.

Chi is impressed with the progress the boy has made in the six months since. “I’m sure he still has wounds in his heart,” she says, speaking about his mother, presumed dead. “I wish for him to be a strong child.”

And what does Rivaldi wish for the future? He says that he wants to become a farmer, like his father. He says he wants to buy a plot of land and graze animals.
“It’s easy to find feed for chickens and goats at the village,” he reasons.

Bakir has heard about his son’s plans, and wants to give him a head start. He’s saving money, in secret, to buy Rivaldi a goat – his very first.

This covert mission gives his early mornings renewed purpose. As he stands amongst his crops, he imagines his son, a grown man, in a paddock one day surrounded by livestock. He’s trying to lock in a sense of security for him, to transform a childhood that might otherwise be marked by loss.

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