Parents Search For Their Missing Children After Indonesia's Disasters : Goats and Soda They were separated in the chaos after the earthquake and tsunami. There's still hope that families can be reunited — but many obstacles loom.
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Parents Search For Lost Children After Indonesia's Disaster

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Parents Search For Lost Children After Indonesia's Disaster

Parents Search For Lost Children After Indonesia's Disaster

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Indonesia is winding down the search for bodies from an earthquake and tsunami nearly two weeks ago. More than 2,000 people are confirmed dead. The number of missing could be as high as 5,000. Now a new search has started among the living. Parents and children separated in the chaos are trying to find each other, and charities are trying to help them. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the city of Palu.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Tents crowd the lawn of a government building. Coloring books are spread out on a tarp. This is why they bring children who've been separated from their parents.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: Social workers teach the children a song about not being afraid of earthquakes and then pull them aside one by one to glean information.

AKBAR HALIM: The most difficult is the babies. They cannot say what is their name, who is your father, where do you live.

FRAYER: Akbar Halim with UNICEF says this is when his work begins - once the power is back on and aftershocks dwindle. Hunched over a laptop in a tent, he indexes school photos and lists of the dead. Zubedy Koteng from Save the Children says only now that some roads are passable and phone service is restored are people able to report their children missing, and the case numbers have spiked.

ZUBEDY KOTENG: For example, we start a very - a low number of only three case a day. But yesterday, it jumped to 19.

FRAYER: Thousands of children altogether are believed to be missing. And even if the government presumes them dead, charities like these say they will keep searching.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Hello.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Hi.

FRAYER: Children play in the driveway as adults keep arriving at this encampment dazed and desperate and hopeful.

EVI KAHARUDDIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "I'm scanning all these little faces," says Evi Kaharuddin, who's looking for her 9-year-old grandson Raldi. He disappeared when the family fled from their house when the earthquake hit.

KAHARUDDIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "He's a smart and chatty boy," she says. "He just got a new bike." Across town, the rest of Raldi's family waits in another tent on the edge of their neighborhood which is now covered in mud. They hope that maybe the boy might wander back to their house. It's been 13 days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBIKE ENGINE REVVING)

FRAYER: But the only way to get to their house now is by motorbike through rice paddies. The asphalt roads are all wiped out. And when we get there, the house is gone.

FAIZAL: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: So your house used to be right here.

FAIZAL: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: And the mudslide just carried it way over there.

The missing boy's stepfather, Faizal, points to parts of his roof strewn a mile away. This is one of the neighborhoods Indonesia plans to declare a mass grave and memorial. Raldi's family says they are not ready for that.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: (Laughter) Hello.

FRAYER: His grandmother Evi sleeps at the camp for lost children every night. She's become a surrogate grandmother to the kids. They climb on her lap and tug on her sleeves as we chat.

EVI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "Children are so precious," she says. "And our time with them is so fleeting." There have been a few reunifications here when parents walk in and spot their missing child. But there are also more unclaimed children being dropped off. Akbar Halim from UNICEF chokes up recounting how a street vendor recently brought in a little boy. His mother had handed him off as she was swept away by the tsunami.

HALIM: The mother said, please help my child. Sorry. And then mother's gone, and this man take the child away. And we try to find the families of the child as well.

FRAYER: You've been here a week hearing all these stories, and it doesn't get easier for you.

HALIM: No, no, never, never.

FRAYER: And he says he will never give up. An Indonesian brother and sister were reunited with their parents 10 years after the big 2004 Asian tsunami. Halim initially thought he'd be in Palu for days or maybe weeks, but UNICEF has just told him to plan to be here for at least three more months. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Palu, Indonesia.

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