Tue, Jan 18, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Desperate couples fight for custody of `Baby 81'

ORPHAN Nine mothers all claim the same infant who survived the tragedy -- and some say they will kill themselves or doctors if they don't get the child

AP , Klamunai, Sri Lanka

The infant dubbed ``Baby 81'' lies in a hospital bed in Kalmunai, eastern Sri Lanka Sunday. Nine mothers laid claim to the baby brought into the hospital after the tsunami and the fate of the baby now lies in the hands of the courts, and ultimately a DNA test to determine parentage, say hospital officials.


Jenita Jeyarajah believes Baby 81 is her son, the 3-month-old infant ripped from her arms by the tsunami. So do eight other mothers.

"As days and weeks pass by, the trauma of not finding their children will drive many such parents to the extreme like the one we are seeing in Kalmunai," said Maleec Calyanaratne, spokeswoman for Save the Children in Sri Lanka. "But every effort should be made to ensure that the baby goes to the rightful mother."

When the waves tore through Jeyarajah's beach-front home, she grabbed her son, Abilass, and her younger sister and climbed atop a concrete slab. The force of the raging waters broke apart their perch and tore Abilass from her grasp as all three fell into the raging waters.

Her younger sister survived, and Jeyarajah and her family now believe Abilass survived as well. They insist Baby 81 is her son, but the tsunami stole the paperwork to prove it.

Hours after the Dec. 26 tsunami killed thousands, sundered families and flattened towns and villages, an old man found the baby on a beach, covered in mud but unhurt. He took the wide-eyed child to the hospital in the eastern coastal town of Kalmunai just hours after the tsunami -- the 81st admission that terrible day.

The desperate struggle by grieving parents over the infant is, perhaps, the most extreme example yet of the depths of a tragedy that has torn families apart. Of the 31,000 people who died in Sri Lanka, 40 percent -- about 12,000 -- were children.

"It is an extremely sad and pathetic situation," Calyanaratne said. "Such incidents in fact confirm our fear that more children have died in the disaster than previously thought. More parents have lost their children than the other way around."

The courts will decide the fate of Baby 81, who doctors say is between three and four months old. DNA tests are planned to determine whom, if any, among the nine claimants is the real parent. But the tests are extremely expensive, about US$120, matching the average monthly salary of a low-level government bureaucrat and far more than a village fisherman might earn.

"Maybe the couples are not lying, but the only way to make sure 100 percent is to have a DNA test," said K. Muhunthan, consulting obstetrician at Kalmunai Base Hospital. "We cannot give away orphans first come first served. We must be neutral."

For the 25-year-old Jeyarajah, the battle to claim her baby is another nightmare to deal with since the tsunami destroyed her home and swept away birth records and family photographs that might have proven her claim.

"My daughter and her husband are heartbroken," said her mother, S. Parameshwarie, recounting her daughter's story from a relief camp where the family is now living. "They have lost everything else. This is their baby. No doubt. He has the same smile as his mother."

Jeyarajah, who has been ill since her rescue, was being treated in a Batticaloa hospital and unavailable for an interview.

Her mother said the family had feared the baby was dead until an elderly neighbor told them he had taken the child to the hospital. When Jeyarajah and her husband went to claim the baby, hospital officials demanded proof.

The couple filed a claim in court early this week to have the baby returned, but hospital officials have referred the matter to police and child probation officers because of the eight other claims on Baby 81.

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