'Give us our baby'

Thursday, February 3, 2005

KALMUNAI, Sri Lanka -- "Give us our baby!" a distraught Sri Lankan mother cried Wednesday after a judge kept her from the 4-month-old boy she says was torn from her arms in Asia's tsunami.

In the disaster zone's most heart-wrenching custody case, a court ordered Jenita Jeyarajah and her husband to undergo a DNA test to prove they are the parents of the child known as "Baby 81," triggering a melee at a hospital that led to the would-be parents' arrests.

The couple had hoped to take custody of the child at Wednesday's hearing, and became inconsolable when told he would be put back into hospital care until at least April 20 -- the next available date on the court calendar when the judge will hear the DNA results.

Jenita Jeyarajah beat her chest and shouted she couldn't be away from her child that long. Then, accompanied by dozens of relatives and friends, she and her husband, Murugupillai, marched a half-mile to the hospital where the baby has been kept since the Dec. 26 disaster and forced their way into the pediatric ward.

"Here is my baby -- look, look!" the 25-year-old woman screamed. "Please give us our baby!" she pleaded before dropping to her knees at the feet of the head nurse and begging to take him home.

The couple and two supporters were arrested and briefly held by police, then released and ordered to appear at a hearing today.

Besides the Jeyarajahs, eight other women have stepped forward to claim the boy, called Baby 81 because he was the 81st admission to the hospital the day the tsunami hit. The Jeyarajahs, however, are the only couple to file a formal custody claim. They say records proving they are the parents of the child were lost in the tsunami.

The couple and the baby will have to travel eight hours to the capital, Colombo, for the DNA test. Results will be available in less than a day.

Harendra de Silva, head of the government's National Child Protection Authority, said the authority was willing to conduct the tests -- which could cost as much as $100 -- for free. UNICEF has also offered to pay for the test.

In ordering the test Wednesday, Judge M.P. Mohaideen said "thousands of babies have died and maybe hundreds of them are missing. It's only after a DNA test that we can be sure that we are correct."

He said any one else who claims to be the child's parents should report to police and have DNA samples taken. "This is very important in case the DNA test does not match this couple," he said.

The Jeyarajahs say the child's real name is Abilass and he was born Oct. 19. A court ordered the hospital on Jan. 12 to give them temporary custody of the boy until his parentage could be determined, but the hospital refused, arguing he still required medical attention.

At the hospital after Wednesday's ruling, Jenita Jeyarajah, surrounded by her supporters, picked up the crying baby and held him in her arms before a nurse took him away.

Her husband, Murugupillai, threatened to commit suicide before two men stopped him from swallowing some white powder.

Authorities shut the hospital's gates and called police, fearing the group would try to take the child away. Police came and told the crowd to leave the hospital, which they did peacefully -- without the baby.

The hospital's 200 staff then went on a brief strike, claiming two employees had been assaulted by the crowd. They resumed their duties when police promised to investigate, then arrested the Jeyarajahs and two supporters.

The battle over Baby 81 has become a symbol of the anguish of thousands of families who lost children in the disaster.

"This baby has suffered terrible losses -- loss of familiar faces, familiar sounds and familiar smells," said Anula Nikapota, a child specialist who lives in London and has come to Kalmunai to help children recover from the trauma of the tsunami.

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