BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Sitting on his bed in a Banda Aceh (search) hospital, Zulfahmi Tarmizi hungrily eats the rice and vegetable soup his grandmother spoons into his mouth.
Days earlier, the pair were separated when U.S. troops ordered the grandmother off an evacuation helicopter to make way for casualties. Now, the Americans have reunited them in a rare good news story amid the tragedy enveloping Indonesia's tsunami-shattered Sumatra (search) island.
Both were sitting in an American helicopter on Monday, when Zulfahmi was about to be airlifted to a hospital for treatment of a leg that was gashed to the bone as he was swept up in the Dec. 26 waves. The tsunami also took his parents and two siblings, all missing and presumed dead.
As the chopper prepared to take off, Zulfahmi's grandmother Adawiyah — his only surviving relative — had to get off.
"I was sitting in the helicopter when they told me to get out," Adawiyah said Saturday through an interpreter. "I was distraught because my only surviving grandson was leaving me. I didn't sleep all night. I asked everyone how to get to Banda Aceh."
When the U.S. military heard what had happened, they set about tracking down Adawiyah, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
One helicopter crewman on the USS Abraham Lincoln (search) said Navy sailors passed the boy's photograph around Sabang Island in their search for the grandmother. The pilots who brought about the reunion were from the USS Rainer, another ship in the U.S. military's relief mission.
Navy officials could not be reached for comment on further details of the reunion.
The grandmother has mixed feelings about how the U.S. military handled the rescue.
"Last night somebody came and told me I had a seat on a helicopter," she said. "I'm grateful to the Americans for taking my grandson away, but it was tough being separated from him. ... I didn't know if I would see him again."
Before Friday's reunion, Zulfahmi would lie awake at night weeping, for his lost parents and siblings and for the grandmother he knew was alive but feared he would not see again.
"The little boy cries at night and he's very bad when there are aftershocks," said 45-year-old Marhaban, who is from the same village as Zulfahmi and shares a small hospital room with him and two other men. "He is very traumatized."
Zulfahmi still vividly remembers the moment the tsunami tore his family apart as he played.
"I was playing chase with my friends, then the earth shook very, very hard," he said. "My father wanted to go to the sea to see it dry up but then there were three huge explosions and I saw huge walls of water and I cried out to my mother 'run as fast as you can."'
The water receded sharply just before the tsunami hit.
Zulfahmi's mother, who had given birth just a month earlier, could not run fast enough. She was swamped, as were the infant, Zulfahmi's 5-year-old sister and his father — Adawiyah's son.
After the tsunami, Zulfahmi and his grandmother fled to higher ground, surviving there on coconuts until he was evacuated.
"This was the toughest week of my life," Adawiyah said. "My son is dead and I only have this little grandson left."