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For tsunami's Baby 81, fame brought misfortune

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami brought international fame to Baby 81, but the parents of the two-month-old who miraculously survived the deadly wave say it has only brought misfortune.

Tsunami survivor Abhilash Jeyaraj, also known as "Baby 81" in Batticaloa district November 22, 2009. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami brought international fame to Baby 81, but the parents of the two-month-old who miraculously survived the deadly wave say it has only brought misfortune. REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

Found in the debris left by the wave that wrecked swathes of Sri Lanka’s coast and killed 226,000 along the Indian Ocean rim, Abhilash Jeyaraj became a phenomenon after international media reported nine sets of parents had come forward to claim him.

He was brought to the hospital by a villager who found him and, since he had no identification, was named after his hospital admission number: Baby 81.

After his injured parents got out of another hospital two days later and went to claim him, a media storm erupted, which eventually forced Abhilash’s parents to go to the police and courts to get their son back.

They were even arrested when they tried to force their way into the hospital to get their son back and could only bring him home after the father supplied a DNA sample -- six weeks after the tsunami.

Subsequent accounts have pointed out the real story was blown far out of proportion -- there were no other couples trying to claim the child.

A TV crew filmed Baby 81 and the rushes were seen by a wire agency reporter. Whether it was a mistake in translation or some other kind of misunderstanding is unknown, but a report then ran that “nine desperate heartbroken women” were all claiming the child as their own.

But for Abhilash’s father, Muruhappillai Jeyaraj, the unrelenting media hullabaloo over a vast misunderstanding has been a personal experience almost worse than the tsunami itseslf.

“I wish we all would have died in the tsunami,” he told Reuters, holding Abhilash, 5, in his lap. “I would not have to tell this story again and again. Nobody will believe that there is no change in our lives.”

ROCK ALBUM

Abhilash and his family were flown to the United States for a 13-day trip with an interview on NBC’s Good Morning America not long after the tsunami. They were never paid for the appearance, Jeyaraj insists.

An American alternative rock band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club called their 2007 album Baby 81 and sold 14,000 copies in its first week.

What should have brought in help, only brought harm, said Jeyaraj, a barber by profession.

“Abhilash has become a dole for all the media, just to get his picture or visual and give publicity. But that publicity has been useless for him or us,” Jeyaraj said.

People assumed he was getting rich off the publicity and began hounding him. He could not get local aid because charities believed he had been paid for the trip to New York. He moved the family from their village in Kalmunai to the city of Batticaloa, on Sri Lanka’s east coast.

Unlike many tsunami survivors who were given houses by the government, Abhilash and his family stay in an unfinished two-room house built on his aunt’s land.

As for the boy himself, he says he still doesn’t know what happened to him, or why the media come looking for him on a tsunami anniversary.

TRIUMPH AFTER TRAGEDY

Though few signs of tsunami wreckage can be seen in stricken coastal communities, some survivors like the Jeyaraj family are still dealing with the emotional debris.

At least a third of those killed in the monster waves were children. Hundreds of thousands of children who survived had to cope with the loss of family members, teachers and friends.

A disproportionate number of women were killed, leaving “bachelor villages” of men struggling to run homes. Mothers guilty about surviving their children battled depression. Fishermen took to the bottle rather than face the sea again.

But for every story of bitterness and despair, 10 more can be found that are a testament to hope and optimism.

Kushil Gunasekera had planned on handing out scholarships on Dec. 26, 2004 to promising primary school cricketers at his small literacy foundation in Seenigama village, 100 km (60 miles) south of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

Instead, the former cricket club champion led them in fleeing the tsunami waves that killed more than 150 in the village.

Afterward, he started taking care of scores of survivors in the family’s sprawling ancestral home.

He became an “instant aid” group, one of scores of amateur micro-charities that sprung up in the aftermath of one of the great calamities of our age.

The stunning television pictures of a phenomenon few people had ever seen, and the sheer scope of the disaster, prompted an unprecedented outpouring of charity across the world. Some of it came to Gunasekera’s shoe-string operation.

Soon he was providing livelihood training.

His “model village” project now provides a range of free services for more than 20,000 people in the area, ranging from health and dental care, photography and diving classes, to a sports academy for the youth.

“It is true, this project could never have happened before the tsunami as it was difficult to get funds,” Gunasekera said.

“It’s sad to say, but from this tragic event came a blessing,” he said. “The kindness of people was overwhelming and the waves of compassion overpowered the waves of destruction.”

Additional reporting by Nita Bhalla; Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Bill Tarrant

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