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After a harrowing search, girl reunited with parents

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- The last time Amiruddin saw his shy 7-year-old daughter was three weeks ago when the tsunami snatched her away.

In the chaos of flash floods, as the family scrambled toward the roof of their home, a utility pole fell, separating Putri from her parents. "We went to the roof and I couldn't find her," said her mother, Hernini. Like her husband and many others here, she has one name.

The waters had barely receded when the family began its search for Putri, checking first among the corpses in the streets of their city, Lhokseumawe.

They continued after leaving their destroyed home behind and traveling 90 miles to Banda Aceh, capital of the province hit hardest by the disaster. They searched makeshift morgues and scanned lists of survivors, never giving up hope.

Someone was caring for his daughter, Amiruddin reassured himself. She was alive. And yesterday -- when his name was called over a refugee camp intercom, when he was told a young girl had been found, when he raced to that child on a borrowed motorbike -- he held onto that faith.

In Banda Aceh, the parents handed out posters of their daughter in places where have-you-seen-this-person fliers crowd notice boards. They chased down leads, and were told more than once that someone thought Putri had been seen. Always, they came away empty-handed.

At a refugee camp for 4,000 people, Amiruddin registered and gave details of his missing daughter -- description, birth date, and the family's recollection of what she was wearing Dec. 26, when the earthquake and tsunami hit. Amiruddin, a fish vendor, and his wife, who have three other children, slept at the camp and waited.

Just five children had been reunited with their parents at the refugee camp since the tsunami. Lining up, like Amiruddin, some 900 parents have come looking for their children there.

Near Banda Aceh, another group of tsunami refugees, about 200 in all, had sought shelter with a rice trader named Mohammad. He invited them to set up camp on his family's property, which included his farmhouse and his business. It was just what a good Muslim should do, explained Mohammad.

Among the refugees was a young girl with big brown eyes and short dark hair.

Hernini had an anxious, worried look as her husband left, using a camp volunteer's motorbike. Amiruddin said little as he waited nervously outside the farmhouse.

Then the girl with big brown eyes and short dark hair appeared. She was dressed in a dirty T-shirt and blue pants.

Her father's smile was instant. He said nothing as he held Putri in his arms, then kissed her on the head. Other survivors gathered around, gasping and crying at the reunion.

Among those crying was Mohammad.

"Why don't you bring your family here? We'll have a reunion together," Mohammad suggested, but the happy father responded with a grateful no.

"I want to bring the child to show my wife. She feels so sick," Amiruddin said as he took Putri's hand and the two walked to waiting motorbikes.

Amiruddin called out as they entered the refugee camp, pointing joyously to his daughter. Tired survivors finally had something to cheer.

Hernini, still waiting under the tent set up to register missing children, looked up as the girl approached. The overwhelmed mother cautiously inspected the child -- looking to ensure that her teeth were familiar and her ears not yet pierced. Then, she saw that Putri was wearing the small green sandals she had bought her.

Caressing her daughter's head repeatedly, she said she would give Putri a bath and a haircut back at their tent. Then, it would be a rare day of celebration -- complete with an Islamic feast -- for the family that remains homeless and penniless. In time, the family will learn exactly how Putri survived the floodwaters and made the journey to Banda Aceh.

"I am so happy. This is like medicine for my heart," Hernini said. "Yesterday, I was crying and felt like nothing. Today, I've got my daughter."

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