October 19, 2005

Joy, anguish as S.Lanka tsunami tot fetes birthday

CHEDDIPALAIYAM, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Nearly 10 months
after he was found among tsunami debris to become a beacon of
hope and Sri Lanka's best-known survivor, 'Baby 81' celebrated
his first birthday on Wednesday with a trip to a Hindu temple.

As a priest smeared a traditional blessing in dried cow
dung and ash on baby Abilass' forehead, his parents -- who had
to go to court and undergo DNA tests to win custody after all
their documents were washed away by the tsunami -- thanked the

But catapulted into the limelight by a media-frenzy over
the photogenic baby that saw the family whisked to the United
States in the wake of the disaster to appear on "Good Morning
America," their joy is bittersweet.

"When we came back from America, I thought our life would
change. But it hasn't," said the toddler's father, Murugupillai
Jeyarajah, who moved his family to a rented home further inland
along the coast after their neighbors taunted them.

"Nobody has helped us to rebuild our lives ... Everybody
calls us the tsunami family," he told Reuters. "I hope someone
will help us to go to America. I cannot bring up my child in
this country."

Arrested soon after the tsunami for trying to forcibly take
their son from nurses, the couple then had to wait an agonizing
two months before the DNA tests came back positive as media
hyped the story with reports that nearly a dozen other couples
claimed the child.

"I was in shock. I thought the child was dead," Jeyarajah
said, recalling finding his son in a packed hospital three days
after the disaster. "It was like a dream."

Jeyarajah is now earning $3 a day working as a barber, and
lives with his wife and child -- who earned his nickname
because he was the 81st person taken to the hospital in their
former hometown of Kalmunai on the east coast -- in a tiny
house with no running water.

"It is the people who are jealous of us," he added. "They
must have thought that we have got a lot money, especially
after we came back from America. But all we got were toys for
my child. We didn't get any money."

The Jeyarajahs are among hundreds of thousands of Sri
Lankans trying to rebuild their lives after December's tsunami
wiped out entire towns and villages along the island's
seaboard, killing nearly 40,000 people.

(Reporting by Waruna Karunatilake and Anuruddha