‘A gift from Allah’

Malaysia – Lying prone on the bobbing wooden plank, Ari Afrizal looked left and saw the fiery red sun dipping into the watery horizon. Weakly, he turned his face the other way and saw a pearly white full moon rising in the east.

All around him, the sea looked like it was sprinkled with chopped leaves of gold, shimmering in the sun’s glow. Ari had never seen a more wondrous sight. ‘It was beautiful, but it was sad,’ he said.

It was dusk on Dec. 26, and Ari had been adrift in the Indian Ocean for about eight hours, plucked from a beach side construction site in the Indonesian province of Aceh by the waves of a demonic tsunami and hurled into the unforgiving sea.

Ari survived that night. And for the next 14 days, the devout Muslim lived on coconuts and prayers until he was rescued Sunday by a container ship heading from Oman to Malaysia. His ordeal, recounted in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, is the longest known of any tsunami survivor at sea.

‘I was not prepared to die. I didn’t think about it,’ said Ari, a short wiry man who looked up with limpid brown eyes from a hospital bed Tuesday. The tsunami disaster killed more than 150,000 people in 11 nations, the majority in Aceh on Sumatra island.

Ari calls his survival a gift from Allah, the fruit of his devotion. With very little to do for 15 days except to think about his family and girlfriend Ayi Melia, Ari said he prayed.

‘Allah I seek your forgiveness and I seek your help for myself and my parents and Ayi,’ he would recite again and again in the Malay language, spoken in Malaysia and Indonesia. ‘Please give me life. Please give me life.’

Dec. 26 had begun like any other day. A post-Christmas holiday in much of the West, it was a working day in Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim nation with 210 million people.

Waking up at 6 a.m. in his four-room home that he shared with his parents and four siblings, Ari ate a breakfast of rice and fish – the last proper meal he would have for the next two weeks.

He joined four other colleagues and boarded a motorized rickshaw for the 12-kilometer (8-mile) commute to their work place, a beach home they were building for a district official in Aceh Jaya town, about 250 kilometers (150 miles) from the provincial capital Banda Aceh. Ari and his colleagues began work on schedule at 8 a.m. Some of them had climbed the scaffolding, and Ari was on the ground, hammering nails into a wooden plank, when the structure started shaking.

Tremors are common in Aceh. But Ari knew this one was different. Everybody moved away from the house and squatted on the sand, not saying a word, looking at each other in fright.

‘Then the waves started coming. The first wave was 1 meter (3 feet) high. It was yellowish white,’ said Ari.

The wave brought the scaffolding down. A minute later came the big one, a wall of water, this time blueish-white, about 10 meters (30 feet) high. ‘It produced a deep sound like whooooooo. It destroyed the house. The wave hit the houses with a terribly loud sound – phang! phang!’

Ari felt himself being thrown about, as if caught in a giant washing machine. Tossed 500 meters (yards) inland, he banged against a mango tree and grabbed a branch.

‘Everything on the beach was flattened. I saw my friends also hanging on to trees. I thought the world was coming to an end. … I kept praying hard to Allah for my life,’ he said.

Another wave hit him. He went underwater, his mouth clenched tight, and got sucked into the sea. Swimming desperately, Ari could see the hills of Aceh receding fast.

About an hour later came Ari’s first stroke of luck.

A wooden plank about 1.5 meters (5 feet) long drifted by and he clambered aboard. Five dead bodies floated past. About 100 meters (yards) away two men, alive, clung to debris.

‘My throat was burning. The sun was hot. I had cuts all over my body. The salt water was stinging. I couldn’t even find my voice to call out to other survivors. Eventually they all drifted away and I was all alone.’

By the time he found the plank he was utterly exhausted. He lay prone on it for the entire day, too hungry and weak to move.

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