Baby 81 Nine years later

The four month-old that became an icon of hope for the thousands that suffered separation by the devastating waves of the Boxing Day Tsunami,  nine years later, worries of being identified only with the ordeal that befell him as a baby. . .

He was floating inside a plastic basin in the murky waters midst the rubble and the dead, some said. Others said he was discovered lying underneath a pile of debris. Despite many versions that spun around how the four-month old famed as the ‘Tsunami baby’ or ‘Baby 81’ was found surviving the treacherous waves of the 2004 Tsunami, he became a symbol of hope for the thousands of Sri Lankans devastated by the angry waves that tore across the Indian Ocean.  
Some 15 couples were reported to have claimed this tough little survivor as theirs and one mother amongst them had reportedly threatened to end her life if she wasn’t given her baby back.

Media frenzy and rumors?
“All of those claims were nothing but rumors fuelled by the media frenzy,” Murugapillai Jeyaraj, father of Abhilash Jeyaraj aka ‘Baby 81’ said.  
“The baby had been found by a rescue party, caked in mud on top of a pile of debris about 350m away from our earlier home located in Kalmunai. My wife who was injured after being caught in the waves had been lying unconscious a few feet away from him . . .,” he added as he sifted the truth from the bulk of rumors.
As for the Caucasian-chalk-circle scenario reported by the media, where as many as 15 couples had allegedly claimed the baby to be theirs, Murugapillai alleged it was the result of a buzz created by hospital officials.

“We visited the Kalmunai Base hospital every day after the baby was found. We were told there were eight other couples who claim they too were Abhilash’s parents but we never met any of them. Eventually, it was only my wife and I who filed a legal claim and proceeded with the DNA test,” he said.
We met Abhilash’s family in their little home in Kurukkalmadam - a village located a few miles off the Kalmunai town.
Fenced by tin sheets and woven Palmyrah, the house stands half built. Jeyaraj welcomed us in. On the rough, cemented walls were a few colour pictures of Abhilash shyly posing against a vibrant studio backdrop.

The cute, chubby-cheeked bundle of joy was quite thin and rather tall for a nine year-old but he was distinctly recognisable by his big, black eyes.
It took several calls from his father for Abhilash to come out into the living room. Even then, he was hiding behind his mother. Refusing to make eye-contact, he kept staring at his toes.

‘Why am I called the Tsunami baby?’
“He is very shy . . . ,” Abhilash’s mother, Junita said as she drew him closer.

“He prefers to keep to himself because he is overwhelmed by everyone calling him the ‘Tsunami baby’ and because of being constantly asked what happened to him. How could this child remember any of it? He was only a few months old!” she added as she stroked Abhilash’s head.

As if the ordeal of being slapped against the angry waves and their home being razed to the ground along with all their belongings wasn’t enough, Junita and Murugapillai had to fight for 52 days to regain the custody of their son.

In early February 2005 they were even arrested for trespassing when the couple stormed into the Kalmunai hospital along with a mob of about 50 people in tow and grabbed the baby from his cot, in reaction to the ruling given refusing their plea to take Abhilash home while DNA tests were being conducted.

“After locating my wife in the Ampara Hospital, I searched everywhere possible for Abhilash but I didn’t succeed. Even so, I had a strong feeling that he was safe and sound. Although we visited the Kalmunai hospital and confirmed its Abhilash, we didn’t possess any documents to prove our claim – we didn’t even have a photograph because everything was washed away into the sea. But our grief and conviction gave us the strength to fight until he was rightfully returned to us,” Junita said.
When the Court-ordered DNA test finally proved Junita and Murugapillai’s legal claim for ‘Baby 81’ in mid-February of 2005, they were flown to New York to appear in ABC’s Good Morning America show.

“It was unexpected but we agreed to fly to the US to share our ordeal. But what transpired afterwards put us from the frying pan into the fire. The local officials who became convinced we were paid for our appearance in New York and that we had received aid during our trip refused to provide us with any government aid for Tsunami victims.

“The truth is we were not paid a single cent for our appearance and neither did we expect it. So upon our return to Sri Lanka we faced the tough challenge of rebuilding our lives from scratch, with nothing to call our own. The only assistance we received was a sum of Rs. 350,000 provided by an NGO, which we used to build this house. . . .” Murugapillai told me in one breath, his voice shaking with frustration.

Life – nine years later
The only breadwinner of the family, he works as a hair stylist in a nearby salon. With a monthly pay of Rs. 10,000, Murugapillai said standing back on their feet after the Tsunami devastation has been a snail-paced task.

“But we realised that we could not expect anyone’s help. So Junita and I determined to face each day as it comes along and with God’s blessing, we have been able to manage so far. . .”

Our conversation was interrupted by the gurgling laughter of a little girl who crawled into the living room from inside the house. A chubby, curly-haired toddler with the same distinct big-black eyes, she shakily stood up and waddled towards Abhilash and hugged his legs. He bent down and carried her amidst a fit of laughter. “This is my sister, Abhisha,” he told us, coyly. “They are inseparable,” Murugapillai added as he looked at them lovingly.

The two siblings settled in a corner, perched on two chairs placed near a little pink desk. Abhilash finally became a little chatty. A student of Chettipalayam Maha Vidyalayam in Kalmunai, he is due to sit for the Grade Five Scholarship examination next year, which he hoped to ace.

“My favourite subject is English and I like to read books. . . I want to study well so that I can one day become a pilot,” he said beaming proudly. Junita and Murugapillai say their only goal for the future was to provide a sound education for Abhilash and Abhisha.

“We want them to have a better life than us, to be able to move forward in their lives and I can only hope that God will bless us and facilitate our plans,” he said.

Pix by Waruna Wanniarachchi

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