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WORLD

Excerpt: Baby 81

A small child

By Satinder Bindra
CNN

Editor"s Note: CNN New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra was in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when the tsunami struck on December 26 and spent the next three weeks covering the disaster. Inspired by the courage of a 9-year-old boy who lost his mother, Bindra has written a book, "Tsunami: Seven Hours that Shook the World." These are select excerpts from the book.

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Excerpt 3: What were their names?
Excerpt 4: Doctor in a strange land
Excerpt 5: The shrine

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The baby, covered in garbage, had floated onto a pile of brambles on an old tyre. Reaching down, schoolteacher Sree Skandarajah picked up the baby and noticed that he appeared to be in perfectly good health except for some bruises caused by the brambles near one of his eyes. "I thought it was a miracle," he declared, and promptly asked a fellow volunteer to rush the baby boy to the local Kalmunai hospital.

By this time, the hospital was awash with 1,000 bodies and staffers were at their wits' end trying to deal with a catastrophe in which 60 percent of all the fatalities were children. With little time for formalities or detail, a nurse recorded the baby as the 81st patient to be admitted to the hospital that day. Without any known parents or a name, staffers from that point onwards began calling the 4-month-old boy Baby 81.

Within an hour of the baby's admission, doctors asked one of the nurses to take the 4-month-old home. It was a strange decision, but the hospital's obstetrician explained that there was little they could do for Baby 81 in a facility that was floundering to cope with hundreds of seriously injured residents. "We had no staff to look after anyone except emergency cases so it was not possible for us to keep the baby in the hospital. There were dead bodies everywhere on the floor and sometimes we even had to walk over them. So with the permission of the administrators we did seek help from a nurse staying close to the hospital."

However, the nurse did not, as ordered, take the baby home. Fearing another monster wave, her family had moved to the safety of a temple and it was in this relief camp that Baby 81 suckled hungrily at his first proper feed since the tsunami struck.

Meanwhile, desperate for any word on his missing baby, Murugupillai Jeyarajah left his wife, Junita, and sister at the hospital to return to his ravaged neighbourhood. However, with no electricity and with so much debris strewn around everywhere, he quickly gave up his search and dejectedly went back to his wife. The next morning, the Jeyarajahs got caught up in a rumour that the town was going to be hit by another bigger tsunami and decided to flee to a relief centre in the nearby city of Ampara.

On 28 December, the head of the camp, a Buddhist monk, told Junita that a baby had been brought to the local Ampara hospital. The family left immediately, but were crestfallen when they saw the child. It wasn't their Abhilash. The next day, after leaving his wife at the relief camp, Murugupillai returned home. What he saw there brought him to his knees. The water had spared nothing. Not a wall was standing; even the brick roof had been swept six houses down the street.

All their belongings, including Abhilash's crib and even their clothes, had been carried more than a kilometre away. Numb with shock, Murugupillai tried to find what he thought would be the body of his son. As he searched high and low for any sign of the boy, he ran into Sree Skandarajah, who told him he had found a baby wrapped in a pile of garbage: "God had been very kind to the Jeyarajahs," recalled Sree, who advised Murugupillai to rush to the hospital.

Their hearts pounding, the Jeyarajahs reached the hospital only to be met by the vacant stares of the hospital staff, who told them there was no such baby. Angry and confused, the couple once again trudged back to meet their neighbour, Sree. Sensing something was seriously amiss, Sree grabbed the volunteer to whom he had entrusted the job of taking the baby to the hospital and decided to confront the doctors there.

Baby 81's story had now entered another phase, with the local media, once again, highlighting the country"s most bitterly fought custody battle. From being an icon of suffering, Baby 81 now became also a symbol of separation. The infatuation of the local reporters with Baby 81 was annoying Murugupillai, who felt their focus on the numerous other claimants was just making his life a living hell: "If the media says there are eight other parents why don't they come to meet us? I think I am going to have a heart attack."

Behind the scenes, however, the Jeyarajahs' lawyer was now making some headway. The meeting with the local magistrate had gone better than expected and he passed an order declaring the Jeyarajahs to be the baby's "temporary" parents. The magistrate also ruled that in case of any dispute in the matter, he would hold another inquiry. Armed with the order, the couple returned to the hospital, but the doctors felt they couldn't hand over a child on what they considered to be "a first-come-first-served basis."

Furthermore, the hospital wanted paternity issues to be settled scientifically and also made the point that the baby was in no physical or mental condition to be discharged and taken to a relief camp where he was at risk of picking up various infections ....

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