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Street punks, tsunami orphans and the creeping reach of Shariah law. Journey to the shores of Aceh, a hard-core Muslim corner of Indonesia, seven years after Mother Nature came crashing down.

Tsunami mystery meri 2012 02 03
Meri Yulanda. (Fauzan Ijazah /GlobalPost)

Tsunami mystery: Who is Meri Yulanda?

Presumed dead for seven years, a girl returns home in tatters.

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.