Tsunami mystery: Who is Meri Yulanda?


MEULABOH, Indonesia — The girl who came home hardly resembled the girl who washed away.

Seven years had passed since Meri Yulanda disappeared beneath the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami’s waves. The roughly 160,000 killed by the disaster in Aceh, Indonesia, were long buried. Bodies that couldn’t be identified were laid to rest in mass graves. Meri was believed to be among them.

But in late December, Meri appeared on her grandfather’s stoop. She was alive but not well: her lips were scabby, her back purple with welts, her clothes torn and filthy. A small child when the waves struck, Meri was now 15. She spoke her Acehnese dialect in a strange garble and offered a bizarre account of abduction, enslavement and escape.

“This is how my grandchild was returned to me,” said Ibrahim Nur, Meri’s 58-year-old grandfather, peeling back her lavender headscarf. Meri’s hair was snipped into a ragged, ugly bob.

“I asked, ‘How did you end up like that? How did this happen?’”

But the whole truth about Meri, now complicated by DNA results, has proven elusive. Just who is this sweet but frail-of-mind teenage girl who has seemingly come back from the dead?

It depends on who you ask.

To the international media, Meri is the child heroine of a feel-good story that conveniently surfaced just before the tsunami’s seventh anniversary. Her Oprah-worthy homecoming tale was retold by CNN, BBC and every major news wire. Anchors on the morning talk show “Fox and Friends” deemed the girl, a Muslim born in a staunchly Islamic Aceh, to be a “Christmas miracle.”

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To the long-suffering Acehnese, particularly those who never recovered missing kin, Meri is the girl who reanimated their wildest dreams: that a lost loved one could somehow remain alive after all these years.

“We never found my mother. To this day, I pretend she is still living,” said Salmi Hardiyanti, a 21-year-old college student in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. She still recalls the tsunami aftermath with a shudder: buildings flattened into rubble, a river choked with corpses. “If I could meet my mom again like Meri has …” she said, trailing off. “I just miss her so much.”

But to members of Meri’s own family, the girl is equal parts miracle and mystery. The fog of conflicting details swirling around Meri’s story — largely absent from major media reports — has clouded her homecoming from the start.

A tsunami orphan

Meri can’t recall much, if anything, about the day 60-foot tall waves blitzed her hometown, Meulaboh, considered the tsunami damage zone’s “ground zero.” Experts later compared the offshore earthquake’s power to 20,000 Hiroshima-era atomic bombs detonated at once.

According to Meri’s father, a laborer named Tarmiyus, the girl was last seen with her older sister atop a house with waves lapping at the rooftop. Tarmiyus had dragged his daughters there, he said, and told them to wait while he rescued their mother, Yusnidar, a housemaid. Instead, he watched in horror, he said, as a boat violently rammed and obliterated the house. Both Meri and her sister were presumed dead.

Meri appears to remember none of this. Her memory picks up in Banda Aceh, the province’s largest city. She’s spent the last seven years there, she said, bullied into street begging by a cruel woman named Fatima. Her captor, Meri said, forced her to join droves of tsunami orphans pleading for cash outside coffee shops and the city’s grand mosque.

On a good day, Meri could earn 100,000 rupiah, about $11. “But the money was not for me,” she said. According to Meri, Fatima starved her and beat her senseless. If Meri brought home only about $5 or $6 worth of bills, she said, Fatima sent her to bed hungry.

“She’d always hit me on the back. It really hurt,” Meri said. “I couldn’t go home because I was locked up.”

After a particularly savage beating at Fatima’s hands in late December, Meri said, her tormenter angrily spit out the name of Meri’s hometown and told her to scram. Meri said she ran out and tracked down a mini-bus driver bound for Meulaboh. A seasoned beggar, she talked her way into a free ride.

After arriving in Meulaboh, she wandered towards an empty, crumbling building surrounded by men lolling in its shade. Locals call it “the mall.” Regulars, who hang by the mall gossiping over Lucky Strikes, remember Meri telling anyone who’d listen the name of her neighborhood — Ujong Baroh — and her grandfather’s name, Ibrahim.

“She looked really beat up,” said Jufrizal, a skinny 31-year-old security guard who came to Meri’s aid. “Her lips were really crusty. She seemed confused. I asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’ and she said, ‘I’m fine. I just want to go home.’”

The guard sat Meri on a “becak” — a motorbike taxi fixed with a side chariot — and delivered her to the Ujong Baroh neighborhood chief. The chief was familiar with Ibrahim, a mustachioed government security official known for his three live-in wives. (“I used to have five,” Ibrahim said, “but I lost one to divorce and one to the tsunami.”)

Meri was eventually dropped off at Ibrahim’s home, a sea-foam green abode rebuilt after the tsunami. That night, she was reintroduced to her parents: Tarmiyus (Ibrahim’s son) and Yusnidar. The couple’s disbelief faded only when they discovered a dark birthmark on her side — identical to their lost daughter’s, they said — and a familiar scar by her eye acquired from a nasty spill at the age of 6.

“In a way, I’m almost grateful for what Fatima did,” Tarmiyus said. “If she was loving towards Meri, she wouldn’t have come home to us. Because she was cruel, Meri came back into our lives.”

His wife is less forgiving. “Meri says she can recognize Fatima,” Yusnidar said. “So if I ever find her, I’ll eat her alive.”

The tangled truth

This is where Meri’s story becomes a bit too messy for morning talk shows.

Extracting details from Meri is painstaking. Though well into her teens, she has the mannerisms of a small child.

She also contradicts herself. Meri explained to the Jakarta Globe newspaper that her female captor “treated her well” but that a second tormenter, a male, did not. She told other outlets her tormenter named her “Wati.” Asked by GlobalPost to confirm this nickname, Meri went blank.

“Before the tsunami, Meri was cute, funny and smart,” Yusnidar said. “She was nearly finished with third grade.”

Today, Meri can barely read. Her speech is slow and jumbled. She can describe her recent beatings and various landmarks in Banda Aceh, a city separated by Meulaboh by 120 miles of potted, coastal roads. But Meri struggles to describe life at home before the tsunami.

“Meri has changed. I don’t know if this is from the tsunami or the torture,” Yusnidar said. “She behaves like an ‘idiot’,” she said. The English loanword, in Indonesian, rings less cruelly and serves more as a blunt descriptor of the intellectually handicapped.

Did the tsunami leave Meri stricken with head trauma and memory loss? Is she stunted by abuse and malnutrition? Is she coping with a developmental disorder that appeared only after the waves swept her away from her family?

Her family isn’t too concerned with those questions now. They’re coping with a bigger problem.

Four days after GlobalPost’s January visit to Meri’s home, where Tarmiyus appeared every bit an elated dad who’d recovered a lost child, and Yusnidar breezily reminisced about her daughter’s childhood, the family received a phone call from a lab in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

At no cost to the family, a team from the state-funded Eijkman Institute for Microbiology had recently flown in to extract blood samples and confirm Meri’s identity.

Results confirmed that that Tarmiyus is indeed Meri’s father and Ibrahim is her grandfather. But Yusnidar, according to blood tests, is not Meri’s biological mother.

The results are ironclad, the Eijkman Institute said: two biologists processed the blood samples and verified their work through a third analyst, said Herawati Sudoyo, the institute’s deputy director. More than just a testing lab, the institute is a state-of-the-art "molecular cell biology research center that also runs DNA tests for law enforcement agencies.

“We do not want to speculate on who the real mother is,” Herawati said.

The DNA results have spun Ibrahim’s home — where the entire family resides — into disarray. Tarmiyus has stopped speaking to reporters. Yusnidar, according to Ibrahim, stormed out and moved into “barracks” or public shelters erected after the tsunami.

Even Ibrahim professes total bewilderment at the results. “As far as I’m know, my son was never married before and he never had an affair,” Ibrahim said. “So I hope the police will investigate this matter … and reveal the person who has lied to me.”

Meri's mystery

So who is Meri Yulanda?

Is she the same girl Yusnidar raised? Did Yusnidar agree long ago to adopt her husband’s out-of-wedlock child, shielding him from a fundamentalist Muslim society’s backlash? Adultery has always been strictly forbidden in Aceh; under current codes, though no man or woman has been stoned for adultery, the punishment is technically legal under the Aceh’s Quranic law.

Less plausible scenario: Meri is not the same girl her father saw disappear beneath the waves. Perhaps the original Meri perished that day. Perhaps the “Meri” who recently resurfaced is a secret half-sister reared by another woman — Fatima? — while Yusnidar was oblivious. But what of Yusnidar’s claim that she recognizes her lost daughter’s birthmark and scar?

Even less plausible: Meri’s tale is an elaborate hoax, timed to the tsunami’s anniversary, and engineered for financial gain. But if this is the case, why didn’t the family demand cash for their GlobalPost interview? And why do randomly approached men in Meulaboh remember the morning Meri ambled past bruised, dirty and muttering her grandfather’s name?

Before Meri came along, there was “Baby 81,” an equally riveting media sensation arising from the same tsunami’s tumult. The story’s premise: an infant boy, found alone in a ravaged Sri Lankan city, was claimed by nine desperate women wailing over the child in a hospital.

As with Meri’s case, a slew of outlets descended on the story. The baby was even flown to New York for an appearance on NBC’s “Good Morning America.” But the story’s original premise was bogus. Only one woman, later verified as the true mom, had ever claimed Baby 81.

When a Reuters reporter caught up with Baby 81’s parents in 2009, the child’s father said the family was haunted by village gossip that Western media attention made them rich. “I wish we all would have died in the tsunami,” he said. “I would not have to tell this story again and again.”

Meri’s family, upended by her homecoming, has already retreated from the spotlight. Despite their domestic woes, Ibrahim reported that his son and granddaughter remain inseparable. “Meri remains in my house,” Ibrahim said. “She is our responsibility.”

No matter Meri’s true identity, she at least appears to have shed some sort of unpleasant past. “I am really happy now,” Meri said. Soon, she will return to school and attempt to read again, starting with her favorite book, the Quran.

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