10 years after tsunami, victim's mom learns body wasn't lost

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10 years after tsunami, victim's mom learns body wasn't lost
Indonesia was hit the hardest by the Indian Ocean tsunami ten years ago. This was their way of commemorating the 160, 000 or more who died in Aceh Province alone. These were the scenes in the immediate aftermath when the massive wave struck. The death toll rose day by day as bodies littered the streets and others were washed ashore. Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said Friday's ceremony was as much about the future as the past.
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (LEFT) and 2014 (RIGHT) ***LEFT IMAGE*** ACEH, INDONESIA - JANUARY 8, 2005: An aerial shot taken from a US Navy Seahawk helicopter from carrier USS Abraham Lincoln shows devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami to the west of Aceh on January 8, 2005 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are the countries most affected by the December 26 earthquake-tsunami disaster. (Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) ***RIGHT IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 11: An aerial view of coastal in Lampuuk prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 11, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photos by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** TON SAI BAY-PHI PHI ISLAND, THAILAND - DECEMBER 28: Bodies cover the area, waiting, to be transported by boat to Phuket and Krabi on December 28, 2004 in Phi Phi Village, on Ton Sai Bay, Thailand. On Phi Phi island hundreds were killed when an earthquake caused a Tsunami wave destroying everything in its path. The powerful Asian earthquake has effected coastal areas in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India in addition to the tourist isles of Thailand, the death toll is over 50,000. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** PHI PHI ISLAND, THAILAND - DECEMBER 11: A construction worker walks where new buildings are taking place prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 11, 2014 in Phi Phi Village, Ton Sai Bay, Thailand. The tenth anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killing almost 250,000 people will be remembered on December 26. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** PHI PHI ISLAND, THAILAND - DECEMBER 28: Rescue workers carry a body from a shop, December 28, 2004 in Phi Phi Village, Ton Sai Bay, Thailand. Hundreds were killed on the island when an earthquake caused a Tsunami wave destroying everything in its path. The powerful Asian earthquake has effected coastal areas in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and the tourist isles of Thailand, the death toll is over 20,000. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** PHI PHI ISLAND, THAILAND - DECEMBER 12: People walk along the streets prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 12, 2014 in Phi Phi Village, Ton Sai Bay, Thailand. The tenth anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killing almost 250,000 people will be remembered on December 26. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** ACEH, INDONESIA - JANUARY 8, 2005: An aerial shot taken from a US Navy Seahawk helicopter from carrier USS Abraham Lincoln shows devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami to the west of Aceh on January 8, 2005 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are the countries most affected by the December 26 earthquake-tsunami disaster. (Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 11: An aerial view of houses in Lampuuk prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 11, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photos by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (LEFT) and 2014 (RIGHT) ***LEFT IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 28: A scene of devastation is seen in the tsunami hit Indonesian City of Banda Aceh -150 miles from southern Asia's massive earthquake's epicenter - on December 28, 2004, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Up to 55,000 are feared dead across South East Asia and the number is still rising with the possibility of disease outbreaks threatening to claim more as time goes on. (Photo by: Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) ***RIGHT IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 11: People visit the Grand Mosque prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 11, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photos by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 28: A scene of devastation is seen in the tsunami hit Indonesian City of Banda Aceh -150 miles from southern Asia's massive earthquake's epicenter - on December 28, 2004, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Up to 55,000 are feared dead across South East Asia and the number is still rising with the possibility of disease outbreaks threatening to claim more as time goes on. (Photo by: Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 11: A cart drives by in Taman sari park prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 11, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photos by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 28: (EDITORS NOTE : GRAPHIC CONTENT) A man walks amid dead bodies and debris thrown around by a Tsunami that hit the Indonesian City of Banda Aceh - 150 miles from southern Asia's massive earthquake's epicentre December 28, 2004 in Banda Ache, Indonesia. Up to 25,000 were feared dead and the possibility of disease outbreaks threatened to claim more lives. (Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 10: People drive along W.R Supratman street prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 10, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photos by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 28: (EDITORS NOTE : GRAPHIC CONTENT) A man looks for relatives amid dead bodies and debris thrown around by a Tsunami that hit the Indonesian City of Banda Aceh - 150 miles from southern Asia's massive earthquake's epicentre December 28, 2004 in Banda Ache, Indonesia. Up to 25,000 were feared dead and the possibility of disease outbreaks threatened to claim more lives. (Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 10: People drive on Pembangunan street prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 10, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photos by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 28: (EDITORS NOTE : GRAPHIC CONTENT) Acehnese walk amid dead bodies and debris thrown around by a Tsunami that hit the Indonesian City of Banda Aceh - 150 miles from southern Asia's massive earthquake's epicentre December 28, 2004 in Banda Ache, Indonesia. Up to 25,000 were feared dead and the possibility of disease outbreaks threatened to claim more lives. (Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 10: People drive along Panglima Polim street prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 10, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photos by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - JANUARY 8, 2005: An aerial shot taken from a US Navy Seahawk helicopter from carrier USS Abraham Lincoln shows devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami to the west of Aceh on January 8, 2005 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are the countries most affected by the December 26 earthquake-tsunami disaster. (Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 11: An aerial view of houses prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 11, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photos by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** PATONG, THAILAND - DECEMBER 27: A bank automated teller machine rests submerged in the pool of the Holiday Inn hotel near wrecked cars December 27, 2004 along Patong Beach, one of the worst hit provinces of Phuket, Thailand. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami to hit the coastal areas of South East Asia, killing more than 20,000 people with thousands still missing. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** PHUKET, THAILAND - DECEMBER 10: Children play in the pool at the Holiday Inn Phuket Resort and Hotel on December 10, 2014 at Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand. The tenth anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killing almost 250,000 people will be remembered on December 26. (Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** PHI PHI ISLAND, THAILAND - DECEMBER 28: All over Ton Sai Bay, the heart of Koh Phi Phi shops, restaurants and bungalows were totally wiped out following a Tsunami December 28, 2004 on Phi Phi Island, Thailand. Hundreds were killed when an earthquake caused a Tsunami wave destroying everything in its path. The powerful Asian earthquake has effected coastal areas in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and tourist isles of Thailand, the death toll is over 20,000. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** PHI PHI ISLAND, THAILAND - DECEMBER 12 : A general view of the beach prior to the ten year anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami on December 12, 2014 in Phi Phi Village, Ton Sai Bay, Thailand. The tenth anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killing almost 250,000 people will be remembered on December 26. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between a scene in 2004 (TOP) and 2014 (BOTTOM) ***TOP IMAGE*** PATONG, THAILAND - DECEMBER 27: A Thai woman walks by the devastation at a hotel along Patong Beach, one of the worst hit provinces December 27, 2004 in Phuket, Thailand. A tsunami, caused by an earthquake estimated to be 9.0 in magnitude, is responsible for killing thousands of people throughout Asia. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images) ***BOTTOM IMAGE*** PHUKET, THAILAND - DECEMBER 10: Tourists get massages at a small parlor near the beach on December 10, 2014 at Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand. The tenth anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killing almost 250,000 people will be remembered on December 26. (Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images)
Septi Rangkuti (2nd L) holds his son Jumadi Rangkuti next to his wife Jamaliah (top R) and daugther Raudhatul Jannah (L) after being reunited with his missing son Arif Pratama Rangkuti (lower R) in Payakumbuh town on Sumatra island on August 19, 2014. The Indonesian boy was swept away by the devastating 2004 tsunami and has been reunited with his family a decade after he was given up for dead. His sister Raudhatul Jannah was also reunited with her family on August 7, 2014. Arif and her sister Raudhatul Jannah were carried off when huge waves struck their home in West Aceh district on December 26, 2004. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
Indonesian mother Jamaliah is reunited with her missing son Arif Pratama Rangkuti in Payakumbuh town on Sumatra island on August 19, 2014. The Indonesian boy was swept away by the devastating 2004 tsunami and has been reunited with his family a decade after he was given up for dead. His sister Raudhatul Jannah was also reunited with her family on August 7, 2014. Arif and her sister Raudhatul Jannah were carried off when huge waves struck their home in West Aceh district on December 26, 2004. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 25: Buddhist worshipers pray for victims to commemorate the ten anniversary of tsunami at mass grave on December 25, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 25: Acehnese women attend for an collective zikr to commemorate the ten anniversary of tsunami at Baiturrahman grand mosque on December 25, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 25: A woman puts a bouquet of flowers as pray for victims to commemorate the ten anniversary of tsunami at mass grave on December 25, 2014 in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit location, being the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, suffering a huge hit from the following tsunami and resulting in around 130,000 deaths. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
PHANG NGA, THAILAND - DECEMBER 25: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) People commemorate the victims a day before the 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami on December 25, 2014 in Phang Nga province, Thailand. Throughout the affected region of eleven countries, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
NAGAPATTINAM, INDIA DECEMBER 25: Leftover life-jackets lie in an old school building, used as a relief center during the 2004 Tsunami, in fishermens village of Akkaraipettai on December 25, 2014 in Nagapattinam, India. Nagapattinam was one of Tamil Nadus worst-hit places when the tsunami tore through south Asia 10 years ago. On December 26, 2004, a devastating tsunami triggered by an under-sea quake off Sumatra in Indonesia hit Tamil Nadus coast in Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, Chennai and Kanyakumari. The killer waves claimed around 8,000 lives - men, women and children. Some 6,100 died in Nagapattinam alone. Over 230,000 were killed in the tsunami in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the Maldives. (Photo by Gurinder Osan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
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SEINT PAING, Myanmar (AP) - Of all the moments to chase a dream, May Aye Nwe chose the morning of Dec. 26, 2004.

A child of rural Myanmar, she boarded a small boat seeking a better life in Thailand, just as the Indian Ocean tsunami raced in.

Ten days later, her mother got a phone call that her 20-year-old daughter had died, and apparently vanished at sea in one of modern history's worst natural disasters.

It took her nearly 10 years to learn the truth. Her daughter's body had in fact been recovered after the tsunami and was buried in an anonymous grave. It lies today beside more than 400 unclaimed bodies at the Tsunami Victims' Cemetery in southern Thailand, a memorial to the disaster's forgotten victims.

The tombstones are marked with numbers, not names.

An Associated Press investigation helped track down two families with loved ones at the cemetery, including May Aye Nwe's mother. As the 10th anniversary of the disaster approaches, Aye Pu, now a 55-year-old widow, says her healing process can finally begin.

"For so long, I believed my child was lost," said Aye Pu, her eyes filled with tears, during an interview at her remote village in Myanmar's southern Karen state, where she taps rubber trees for a living. "It's impossible to put into words how very sad - and very happy - I now feel."

The discovery has rekindled emotion and memories of her daughter, a bright star in a family of farmers who was on the cusp of a new life.

May Aye Nwe dreamed of becoming a nurse and set off for Thailand to earn money, as do so many of Myanmar's poor. She and a childhood friend, Khin Htway Yee, traveled 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from their village to the country's southern tip. At about 10 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2004, they boarded a boat to cross a tiny patch of the Andaman Sea to Thailand, a trip that takes about 15 minutes.

Earlier that morning, a magnitude-9.1 earthquake tore open a vast stretch of sea bed off Indonesia's Sumatra coast. It displaced billions of tons of water, sending waves roaring across the Indian Ocean, in some places at jetliner speeds. It killed about 230,000 people in 14 countries. More than 5,000 died on Thailand's Andaman Sea coast, where the waves swallowed resort beaches and flattened fishing villages.

Khin Htway Yee, who survived, said the calm sea turned violent a few minutes into the boat ride. She and May had never seen the ocean before, and didn't realize the waves were unusual.

The boat flipped and there was panic, screaming, struggling. Khin Htway Yee, now 31, remains haunted by her friend's desperate last moments.

"We were grabbing at one another," she said, speaking in the shade of her friend's family home. "She tried to pull me, but finally I had to push her away.

"There was nothing I could do. I was struggling for my life, and I couldn't save her," Khin Htway Yee said. She said she survived by holding onto a plastic container bobbing in the water.

After an hour at sea, she struggled ashore with one goal: To evade arrest. She had entered Thailand illegally and was too afraid to report what had happened to authorities. She disappeared into the illegal workforce and stayed two years in Thailand before returning home and starting a family.

May Aye Nwe's story helps explain why there are 418 unclaimed bodies at the Tsunami Victims' Cemetery, in the town of Ban Bangmuang. Experts believe most of those buried are migrant workers from Myanmar, also known as Burma, who came to do the jobs that Thais shun. Then, as now, many were working in the area illegally and had no documents. When they died, no one knew who they were, and those who did know were too scared to go to authorities.

"I believe that over 90 percent of these bodies are Burmese migrant workers," said Htoo Chit, a human rights advocate for Myanmar migrants, during an interview at the cemetery. "Many migrants who lost their loved ones, they were afraid of being arrested and deported. That's why there are so many bodies here."

The cemetery was created after a massive operation by international forensics experts to identify and repatriate victims was completed.

As part of the AP investigation, reporters sifted through more than 100 documents, finding mostly single names that led nowhere and non-working phone numbers. Some have DNA data but most have little beyond a reference number. Their gravestones are concrete blocks with metal plaques that bear a reference number.

May Aye Nwe's reference number was PM66-TA1415. It is unclear why she went unidentified because her body was found with her national identity card __ which AP used to find her village, and then her mother.

While most of the bodies in the cemetery will probably never be identified, one other family now has a degree of closure, after 10 years of waiting.

On a sunny morning last month, the body of Bhesraj Dhaurali, a tailor from Myanmar of Nepalese descent, was exhumed from the cemetery and cremated with Hindu rites, after the AP investigation traced police records to his family.

The ceremony was attended by his 19-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter. They were still in Myanmar when the tsunami killed both their parents, who had gone to Thailand to work. The son and daughter have followed in their footsteps, and now live in southern Thailand.

"If I could speak to my father today, I would ask him why he left us so early," said the daughter, Dipa Dhaurali. "It has been so many years. But after being able to see this with my own eyes, in a way it gives me some joy."

May's mother is too poor to travel to Thailand to retrieve her daughter's body, or to pay to have it brought home. She hopes the body can be cremated in line with Buddhist customs.

"I'm not angry. I don't blame anyone. I want to thank those who kept her body," Aye Pu said, sobbing. "This was my daughter's fate."

Forgotten Victims of 2004 Tsunami

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