Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

UNICEF helps ‘Baby 81’ reunite with parents

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© UNICEF/HQ05-0223/Pietrasik
A flyer with pictures of two schoolchildren who have been missing since the tsunami disaster is affixed to a lamppost outside Southland College in the Galle District.

KALMUNAI, Sri Lanka, 16 February 2005 - The four-month old Sri Lankan boy who miraculously survived the tsunami - and later nicknamed “Baby 81” - was officially reunited with his parents in court today.  Jenita and Murugupillai Jeyarajah joyfully took their son, Abilasha, from the arms of a doctor in front of an eastern Sri Lankan courtroom filled with onlookers and reporters. 

The cheerful reunion came two days after a judge confirmed their parentage based on DNA tests, two months after the baby was swept away from his mother’s arms by the raging tsunami waters. Found in the mud by a villager, the child was the 81st patient admitted to a hospital in Kalmunai on 26 December, and therefore dubbed “Baby 81.” 

After the hearing, the happy family travelled in a UNICEF vehicle to a nearby Hindu temple, where they prayed and offered a 100 coconuts to the Elephant-headed god, Ganesh for his son’s return. 

Later in the day, the family visited the rubble that their home had become, along with the site where the waters dragged the boy away.  The family then travelled to the home of Jenita’s aunt, a modest, one-story, cement house where the family temporarily resides.  Droves of visitors, including many family members, came by to see the child. 

Abilasha wore a black mark on his forehead known as a “muttu,” which helps ward off evil spirits.  It was painted by the nurses in the Kalmunai hospital.

The reunion concluded an agonizing process for the parents, who lost their home and all of their possessions during the tsunami. Unable to prove that “Baby 81” was theirs, they pursued the matter in court.  “UNICEF was asked by the court to help the family with the DNA process. We provided them with transportation, accommodations in the capital, and even paid for the DNA testing,” said Geoff Keele, UNICEF Communication Officer in Sri Lanka.

The Jeyarajah’s were among nine families who claimed the baby. However, they were the only ones to press their claim in court. “It’s been a really difficult process for them to, not only have gone through the terrible tragedy of the tsunami and the loss of their child, but also to be under a lot of media pressure,” added Keele. 

As the “Baby 81” story made headlines worldwide, the family felt tremendous strain. The father publicly threatened to commit suicide if forced to undergo DNA tests but later relented.  “We provided a counsellor to accompany them across the country for the DNA test and the counsellor has been with them throughout this whole ordeal,” said Keele. 

Sadly, many children in Sri Lanka are not as lucky as “Baby 81.” UNICEF and Save the Children conducted a preliminary study of 400 camps for displaced families and determined that there are approximately 3,000 children who lost at least one parent, and 1,100 who lost both their parents.

“These children are going to require a great deal of support,” Keele noted. UNICEF’s efforts are also directed to giving children the necessary psychological care.  UNICEF personnel are training teachers and medical professionals in “psycho-social” activities for children in schools. “It’s key to conduct different kinds of activities with children to help them deal with the trauma,” said Keele. 


 

 

Audio

16 February 2005:
UNICEF Communication Officer Geoffrey Keele describes how UNICEF helped ‘Baby 81’ be reunited with his parents.

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