The infant dubbed "Baby 81" (search) nurses from a bottle of milk and kicks playfully at a pink blanket as nine desperate, heartbroken women quarrel over him — all claiming he was torn from them by the tsunami.
One man standing outside the nursery at Kalmunai Base Hospital (search) threatened to kill himself and his wife if they are not given the baby. A woman at the hospital said she would kill the doctors unless she gets him.
The battle over the wide-eyed boy, who appears to be about three or four months old, symbolizes the enormous loss in the Dec. 26 disaster.
Children accounted for a staggering 40 percent — or 12,000 — of Sri Lanka's death toll of nearly 31,000. In all, nearly 160,000 people have died across southern Asia.
The loss is especially keenly felt in Ampara (search) district, where the fight over "Baby 81" is taking place. There were 10,436 people killed in Ampara, the highest in Sri Lanka.
The infant, bruised and covered in mud but otherwise healthy, was brought to the hospital hours after the tsunami struck Kalmunai, a remote town in eastern Sri Lanka that is home to Muslims and Tamils. It was partly cut off after a major bridge was swept away by the deadly waves.
He was given the nickname because his real name is not known and he was the 81st admission that terrible day, officials said Friday. No relatives were with him.
Now, nurses in the hospital are competing to take care of the infant, a doctor said. They have put a "mottu" on his forehead — a black stain to ward off evil.
The nurses are not the only ones vying for "Baby 81."
"Parents who have lost their children come every day to the hospital to check," Dr. K.R. Saseenthirian said Friday in a telephone interview. "Some stay and claim that the baby is theirs."
The nine women who claim "Baby 81" show up at the hospital and quarrel with each other, a hospital official said.
"Most of the parents who came and claimed that this is their baby are really believing that this is their baby," Dr. K. Muhunthan, an obstetrician, told Sky TV.
"Maybe they are not lying, because they have lost a baby of the same age and all the babies they look at look like their own child," he said.
Hospital authorities asked police to investigate after some of the parents became violent, Saseenthirian said. No one was injured.
"Now it will have to be a court decision. If the court asks us to conduct DNA tests, we will do that," Saseenthirian said.
DNA tests are expensive in this poor region, however, and it was unclear who would pay — or where they might be done.
Another doctor in charge of the children's ward said "Baby 81" was the only child without his parents in the hospital.
"We have 25 babies, but all of them have their mother or father," said Dr. Kandaswamy Muruganathan.
"Our Baby 81 is alone, but then all the nurses want to attend to him," he said.
"He is a healthy baby and feeding well on cow milk. We have no problem, he is fine," Muruganathan said by telephone.
UNICEF says preliminary data indicate that nearly 1,000 children were orphaned by the tsunami in Sri Lanka and 3,200 more lost one parent.