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Long-Lost Thai Woman Reunited with Family, Village

They've been having a party the last couple of days in Mae Sae village in southern Thailand's Narathiwat province. Villagers are celebrating the return of a woman who was believed to have died a quarter century ago.

Deayaena Bueraheng, 76, disappeared in 1982. She has trouble remembering a lot of things, but not the day she left.

"I took a taxi to the train station and got on the first train that came," she said. "And when it stopped, I got on another. And when it stopped, I was in Chang Mai."

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Chang Mai is about as far away from her village as you can get in Thailand, about 1,200 miles to the north. It's near the border with Laos and Myanmar, formerly Burma.

She stayed there in Chang Mai for the next five years. Like many from Thailand's mainly Muslim south, she spoke no Thai. Bueraheng couldn't read or write and became a beggar.

I begged people for food, or a little money, and slept on the sidewalk," she said.

Bueraheng was arrested and taken to a shelter, where She stayed for the next 20 years. Her eldest daughter — Suemueso, now 63 — said the family gave up looking for her when a call from the local police came about a year after she vanished.

"They showed us the body of a woman run over by a train," Suemueso said. "They told us that it was our mother. So as far as we were concerned, she was dead."

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Things might have stayed that way forever, had fate not intervened in the form of three young students who came to the shelter as interns last month.

The young Muslim women were from the same province as Bureaheng. And they spoke her language — a Malay dialect known as Yawi that's the first language for most in the Muslim-dominated south.

She told them her story. The called home, to see if anyone might know her. A few days later Bureaheng's 35-year-old son Mamu got a call.

"At first I didn't believe it," he said. "Then they said that this woman said he had eight children. And I started to get excited. Then they emailed me a picture of her they'd taken with their cell phone and I knew it was my mother."

Five days ago they went north to bring her back. But their reunion was bittersweet.

"She didn't remember any of us," Mamu said. "But she's doing better now. she recognizes all of us, but still has trouble remembering our names."

One of her other sons, 41-year-old Aliyah, is concerned she might leave again.

"I'm worried, because I think she might be mentally ill," he said. "There's nobdy here who has tme to to take care of her. We're all poor, and we all have to work in the rubber plantation every day. I'm afraid I might come back one day and she'll be gone."

His mother can't, or won't, explain why she chose to leave in the first place. For now, though, she says she's happy to be home.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.