Indonesian found adrift after eight days returns home

Saturday, March 5, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Swept out to sea by the tsunami, Rizal Shahputra drifted on a raft of uprooted trees for eight days, seeing hundreds of people slowly tire and slip beneath the waves before he was rescued.

On Friday, he returned home from Malaysia for the first time -- happy to be back but mourning his mother, father and two of his three siblings, who were all killed by the wall of water Dec. 26.

"I still feel my family by my side even though they are dead," Shahputra said after an emotional reunion with 10 surviving relatives in his home province of Aceh on Sumatra island.

"I'm 80 percent happy, and 20 percent sad because everything I remember is no longer here," Shahputra said.

At the reunion, he prayed with his relatives and showed them a photo album containing newspaper clippings describing how he survived, a story that was widely reported after he was picked up Jan. 3 by a Japanese-owned cargo ship and taken to Malaysia.

Shahputra, who was brought home by the British Broadcasting Corp., said he intends to return to Malaysia, where he wants to study civil engineering.

The 20-year-old was cleaning a mosque in Calang on Sumatra's west coast when the earthquake-spawned tsunami crashed ashore. He had no time to run to higher ground and was swept out to sea with an untold number of others.

More than 125,000 people have been confirmed killed in Indonesia, the hardest-hit of a dozen countries on the Indian Ocean's rim, with almost 100,000 more still missing.

Shahputra managed to clutch onto trees -- a gift from God, he said -- and fashioned a makeshift raft. On his first day adrift, he saw hundreds of people in the water, swimming or struggling to stay afloat on pieces of debris.

On the second day, he saw six women drown, unable to hold on to driftwood any longer.

"They were asking me to help them but I couldn't," Shahputra said. "Now that I'm alive, I have the chance to pray for them so they will be better in the afterlife."

As time went on, he saw fewer and fewer people.

Shahputra lived on rain water he managed to collect until he was rescued.

"I kept fighting, keeping my spirits up to return to dry land," he said Friday, looking thin but healthy, and bearing a scar on his temple.

In Malaysia, Shahputra shared a room at an Indonesian diplomat's residence with another survivor from Aceh, Ari Afrizal, who survived at sea for 15 days before being rescued. Afrizal remains in Malaysia and wants to stay to find work.

The British Broadcasting Corp., which is making a documentary about Shahputra, partly funded his flight home and an eventual return to Malaysia.

Malaysia is now expelling tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, many of them from Indonesia, and has threatened to whip any who return without proper documents. Malaysian officials have said Shahputra will be allowed to return, but insist most Acehnese should remain in Indonesia because rebuilding projects should mean there will be many jobs.

Shahputra said he and a BBC crew would soon go to Calang, where more than 90 percent of the residents are believed to have died in the tsunami.

"When I get married, I do not know where to pay my respects to my parents," he said, referring to the Acehnese tradition of visiting the graves of dead parents to seek their blessing before marriage.

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