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.