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Torn apart, then reunited after Indonesia’s quake and tsunami

For three days after the disaster, Rivaldi's father didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

By Ethan Donnell

Rivaldi, 13, knows his father takes his coffee with a tablespoon of sugar. But today he accidentally heaps sugar into the cup. His father brings the mug to his lips, his face contorting into a scowl as he swallows. Too sweet. He takes a second sip anyway.

And then another.

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

Rivaldi (13) and his father, Pak Bakir, stand in the family home in Palu, Central Sulawesi.
For three days after the earthquake, he didn’t know if Rivaldi was alive or dead. More than 100 children would later be registered as missing.

Social worker Chi Ramadhani 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 would only say one or two words.”

Rivaldi (13) prepares coffee for his father, Pak Bakir. Since his mother died, Rivaldi does what he can to help his father.
In the days after they were reunited, father and son spoke more than they normally would.

“I spent a lot of time talking with him, heart to heart,” says Bakir. His wife was working at a marketplace along the coast when the tsunami made landfall. Her body has never been recovered. “Your mother is in a better place,” he remembers saying. But six months isn’t enough time to grieve. The memory still causes him to weep.

Rivaldi had been walking with friends, on his way to get a haircut when the earthquake hit. He was picked up by a police officer and taken to an evacuation centre. His father didn’t know this at the time. And yet something told him everything would be alright.

“I had an instinct,” says Bakir. “I felt he must be somewhere safe.”

Rivaldi (13 years old) was separated from his family for three days after the earthquake and tsunami impacted Central Sulawesi on September 28, 2018.

Three days passed before that inkling was confirmed.

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

The family tracing and reunification programme - a collaboration between UNICEF Indonesia and the Social Ministry of Palu - uses an online platform, Primero, to match unaccompanied children with data held in missing children reports. Fifty-six social workers have been trained by UNICEF to use the platform. And 47 children have been reunited with their children during the last six months.

Social worker Chi Ramadhani stands with Rivaldi (13) outside the family home in Palu, Central Sulawesi. Chi was the social worker who reunited Rivaldi with his family. Six months later, she says he seems much happier.

Bakir helps Rivaldi corner a chicken, who, having eluded the teenager’s grasp, runs amok. Bakir pounces on the chicken, handing the captured bird to his son. Rivaldi holds him by the legs, stroking the tufts of feathers.

Rivaldi wants to be a chicken farmer when he grows up. He plans to move closer to the village and buy a plot of land.

“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. He’s not simply indulging his son. He wants to lock in a sense of security for him, to transform a childhood that might otherwise be marked by loss.

Rivaldi (13) holds one of his six chickens outside the family home in Palu, Central Sulawesi. He wants to one day be a chicken and goat farmer.