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Baby 81, the Tsunami’s Great Human Story, Revealed a Hoax

Does everyone remember Baby 81?

His real name is Abilash Jeyaraj, the “famed” three month-old survivor of the ferocious and nearly apocalyptic tsunami that tore across the Indian Ocean in December, 2004, and wiped out countless thousands of lives with its fury. Abilash was found among the debris a few days after the tsunami struck and was handed over to the Government Hospital in Kalmunai, Eastern Sri Lanka.

We remember Baby 81 because the media seized on the story after it was discovered that nine (and as many as 15) families claimed the baby as their own. Google “Baby 81″ and you can quickly observe how much interest there was in this story. The Wikipedia entry on Baby 81 says he was the subject of a “parental identity dispute.”

The fuss stemmed from the fact that all of these different families allegedly made claims on the same baby. One of the mothers reportedly threatened to kill herself if she did not get her baby back. There was a moving photograph and video footage of three women wailing for the child.

Court-ordered DNA tests designed to find out who the baby’s real parents are proved that the Jeyarajs are the real parents and the baby was subsequently handed over to them. NBC’s Good Morning America had the family flown to New York so they could be interviewed on the show. Abilash even made a television appearance with actress Uma Thruman.

But this story, as reported, is a myth. The Jeyaraj family is the only family that ever attempted to claim Baby 81.

Here’s the real story. I have personally viewed the videotapes of follow-up interviews with the people involved, including the Jeyaraj family. Looking at the facts will reveal how and why something that never happened developed into a massively and globally sensationalized post-tsunami story.

During the tsunami, the three-month old baby later known as Baby 81 was separated from his mother, Juanita, and later found by a man who brought him to the Government Hospital in Kalmunai. In the chaos following the tsunami, distraught families flocked to the hospital in search of missing relatives. Many offered to care for the unclaimed child if his parents could never be found. But no formal requests exist in which a mother claims to be the biological parent of this baby.

A few days later the Jeyarajs arrived at the hospital, found young Abilash, and asked the doctors if they could take him home. They were told the baby was not yet healthy enough to be released.

The Jeyarajs then learned that a nurse who worked in the hospital wished to take the baby as she had lost her own. Fearing for the safety of their son, the Jeyarajs then went to the Kalmunai police to lodge a complaint in an attempt to officially reclaim their child.

Around this time, a reporter from an international news service arrived at the Kalmunai hospital, which is located in an area of Sri Lanka devastated by the tsunami. Based upon an interview with a doctor, the reporter picked up on the missing baby story. While aware that no formal claims were filed, the coverage of the story was distorted to make it appear that many mothers were after a single child. It was somehow determined that the number of mothers after the baby totaled nine.

A few short days later, this story made headline news all over the world, from local channels in Sri Lanka to the BBC and CNN.

But no one fact checked the story.

All it took was a day in Kalmunai to figure out that the Baby 81 story is simply not true.

If you ask any of the doctors in the hospital, they’ll tell you that they never had any doubt about the identity of the parents. But when you ask them if there were other women claiming the baby the answer is always yes. When you ask them how they know this, they’ll reply that they saw it on TV or read it in the papers. Ask them if they ever saw any of the women other than Juanita and the answer will be no.

The Kalmunai police have never seen anyone other than the Jeyarajs make a formal claim on the baby. The Kalmunai magistrate knows of no one other than the Jeyarajs as well. But, again, the Kalmunai Police’s OIC (Officer in Charge) and the Kalmunai magistrate will tell you that they’re positive there were nine women who wished to claim the baby. They’re certain because they saw it on the TV.

As the media began to scramble for a story that wasn’t there, the lie began to snowball. It grew to the point where even the people involved started to believe it. Kalmunai is a small town, yet no one there has heard of any of the other women who supposedly attempted to claim the baby.

That’s because these women never existed.

But wait! What about that photograph of three women wailing and demanding the baby?

Are they demanding the baby? Yes.

Are there three of them? Yes.

Who are they? They’re Juanita, her mother, and her aunt.

So in reality it’s three women from the same family demanding their baby. The mother and the aunt wanted the baby back as badly as Juanita did. But what did the caption on the photograph read? “Three mothers claim Baby 81 as their own,” or something to that effect.

The truth actually came out a year ago with a report in the Lanka Business Online. It’s been lightly reported. An article in the Rocky Mountain News is a rare exception. Blogs like Outside the Beltway and the Volokh Conspiracy reported the hoax but the mainstream media had mostly moved on.

Here’s a challenge: Go through all of the Baby 81 stories available online and find the name of one woman (other than Juanita Jeyaraj) who claimed the baby. A lot of news stories carry quotes from other women, but Juanita says that these things were said by her mother or her aunt, who were with her all along during the ordeal. No one bothered to identify who they were.

And now, why has there been no retraction or apology from anyone?

Do all of the news wire services know it was a lie? Yes.

Does everyone in the media know it was a lie? Yes.

But no one is going to say anything about it because many in the media were a part of this lie. Everyone – from the reporters in Sri Lanka who rushed to Kalmunai to cover the story to the editors sitting at their desks in London and New York – messed up.

No one checked their sources, and the story was covered simply because everyone else was covering it. And now, all are party to the crime yet you sure as hell won’t see the media owning up to its mistakes unless absolutely forced.

Morquendi is a contributor to Desicritics.org, a Blogcritics.org network site.


About Morquendi

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    A search on “baby 81″ right now is interesting — lots of articles from major news sources reporting about how nine different families claimed the baby, none with any retractions or corrections or anything. Amazing.

  • Cheesefries

    wow…. how gay i just wasted 5 minutes reading this

  • BOV

    WHO CARES?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Yes, Lord forbid the news gets reported accurately. Why waste time worrying about that?

  • http://www.moviesteve.blogspot.com Steve C.

    Accuracy? Who cares about that when we’ve got a moving story? :-P

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    Now, if this were a report about how American Idol is a lizard recruiting model, and those who drop out, well, drop in;) – the commenters above would be totally riveted to the machinations of media

  • Aristus

    “Does everyone in the media know it was a lie?”

    Probably not. As your article points out, even the doctors who were THERE are fuzzy about the truth now. No one in “the media” is magically immune to the effect of media blitzes. That, and no one really cares. The job of the “media” is to grab people by the emotional gonads and make them feel better about themselves.

  • Sue

    I gotta say…I agree with BOV and Cheesefries in regard to this story.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Sue, you’re entitled to your position, but in my view that attitude reinforces the ability of the media to throw stories out there that may or may not be fully true.

    I personally find it hard to believe that anyone finds that acceptable. If you can’t trust “facts,” then what can you trust?

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    The “not-entirely-correct story that becomes a global meme” issue is a serious one for the media to deal with.

    Thank you for putting this all on the record…

  • http://insidebrain2005.blogspot.com Matthew Milam

    It’s the same thing when you watch a movie based on a true story, some of the facts are going to be changed. The only different is that the “media” shouldn’t be reporting make-believe or half-assed reports. But to a certain extent, reporters don’t really care anymore and are tired of fighting the cause.

    Now it’s up to regular readers to find the truth for themsleves.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    I’m amazed at how many people are basically saying, “I don’t care if the media completely makes stuff up.”

    I’m starting to wonder, is there really a war on? Was there even really a tsunami? Maybe there haven’t really been any new Supreme Court justices in the last year, just a few folks the media wanted to put on TV screens.

    That’s crazy, folks. We depend on media sources to report the truth, and to own up to it when they get it wrong. People lose their jobs over this kind of thing, generally.

  • Diane Kristine

    I think some of the blase attitude comes from the fact that it’s not a new discovery, that the media sometimes reports innuendo as fact and distorts molehills into mountains. Add to that the fact that the tsunami baby story wasn’t a hard news story (and one I don’t remember hearing about the first time around), with no effect on our lives whether it’s true or not (unlike stories about our governments, for example), and you’ve got jaded and disinterested. Sad, but not unexpected.

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    Perhaps the attitude is because it happened ‘over there’

  • http://spaces.msn.com/turbo0852/PersonalSpace.aspx?_c11_BlogPart_blogpart=blogentry&_c=BlogPart&_c02_owner=1 Suzie

    Well I agree with the writer..
    People should get facts straight… when my niece was murdered by her father in 1997… the newspapers here stated that he had killed my sisters son…

    They even said they would type an apology and never did… think of the families who are involved before you start saying who cares..we had family calling us asking if both my sisters children had been murdered..and yes media causes unnecessary trouble in a time of need..

    SO, If you don’t care, don’t read it..
    don’t leave a comment.. and have some compassion for the people whos lives are effected by lies and untruths..

  • StillHere2550

    It may help to consider the initial circumstances facing the reporters. The people of the island of Sri Lanka were enduring true horror and chaos; it was hot, muggy, and rumours were flying.
    The false story of many women seeking one living child struck a chord with people around the world, because the story dramatized the true circumstances that were going on for tens of thousands of people who survived: extreme grief, shock, confusion, unreliable information about missing loved ones,and desperate hope of being reunited.
    Since many survived by running or climbing trees, a disproportionate number of the dead were weak people: babies, young children, and the elderly. Hence the story of one small child survivor lighting up hopes for many adults who were missing a child was believable.
    Even if reporters had tried to dig into the real facts they likely faced a cultural obstacle. The majority people’s (the Singhalese) culture views it as generally inappropriate and risky to correct another person’s wrong ideas (lest you embarrass yourself or the other person). Also I’ve noticed that they rarely volunteer any information to outsiders; they pass along facts hesitantly, when absolutely necessary. A reporter who didn’t know the culture could easily make mistakes that he wouldn’t make in his home country.
    And why not make a lot of effort to correct the story? Perhaps because it would suggest that the true losses, confusion, grief, hope and pain that the story gave voice to had also been false.

  • SL

    …Is the mother’s name Juanita or Jenita like I’m seeing on other sites. Funny, this Morguendi who apparently knows the whole truth and nothing but the truth seemed to slip and put a half-assed Mexican name in an Indian culture…
    I’d like to see her signature please.
    I can’t care too much when I know I’ll never see the truth

  • Jaebird

    lol