Published in Reveal Magazine, UK
Wandee Sarawut couldn’t stand the nudges and whispers any longer. Grabbing her five-year-old son, Rong, she marched over to the huddle of villagers staring in their direction and demanded to know what they were gossiping about. “It’s probably nothing,” said one of the women, reluctantly. “But we couldn’t help noticing how much Rong looks like Orawan, the girl who lives on the shrimp farm down the road.”
Wandee shook off the suggestion, but she recognised the name. Although they lived a mile apart in the southern province in Trang, Thailand, Wandee remembered her eldest son, Jirayuth, 10, mentioning Orawan – the two were classmates and shared the same birthday. One day, as Wandee passed her son’s school on her way home, curiosity compelled her to sneak inside.
Peering around the door, her eyes scanned the classroom before spotting a child near the back. As the little girl lifted her head from her book, Wandee gasped – the round face staring back at her was the spitting image of her husband’s. “I told Somjet, my husband, as soon as I got home, but he just thought I was crazy,” says Wandee. “A few days later, Orawan was in our village, so Somjet went out to have a look at her. He came home in floods of tears and said: ‘I think that’s our daughter’.” He was right. Orawan was their daughter -10 years earlier, she and Jirayuth had been swapped at birth in a blunder that has left the two families traumatised.
The tragedy began in the early hours of 14 May 1995 as Wandee went into labour with her first child. Less than a mile away, Pratoom Juping, now 35, was also feeling labour pains. Both women were rushed to Yan Ta Khao Hospital and placed in adjacent beds, where an extraordinary series of coincidences began to unfold. At precisely 7.45am, with their relatives waiting in nearby rooms, both women gave birth to babies who were the same height and weighed 6lb 5oz. Both mothers passed out during the births, so nurses couldn’t tell them the one crucial difference – one was a girl and one was a boy.
Nurses handed the babies over to their fathers outside, but somehow mixed them up. Wandee said: “I blacked out so I don’t know what happened. The nurses didn’t wake me up to tell me the details. When I woke up the first thing I saw was my husband holding a boy.” The mistake was nearly spotted when the fathers went to register the births. Pratoom, who gave birth to a son but took home a girl, said: “My husband went to the registry office. A member of staff said ‘the documents say you have a boy, but the child has a girl’s name’ They then just apologised for the mistake and crossed out the error on the document.”
It wasn’t until the children started school that friends began to comment on the similarity each bore to the other’s family. Finally, to quieten the rumours, the families agreed to have a DNA test. Four agonising weeks later, the result threw both families into turmoil. “We had prepared ourselves for the worst,” says Wandee. “Somjet was so worried he couldn’t go to work. When the switch was confirmed, my first reaction was grief for Jirayuth. I’d taken him from his family.”
Both mothers felt the same: although they loved their children, they felt drawn to their own flesh and blood. “I knew I’d never stop loving my son, and the last thing I wanted was to lose him,” said Wandee, “But I had an unbearable urge to meet my biological daughter.” Orawan’s parents agreed to bring her over, but the initial meeting between Wandee and her daughter wasn’t a joyous one.
Orawan had been raised in a modest but comfortable house on Pratoom and Chamnan’s shrimp farm. In stark contrast, Wandee and Somjet, who work as farm labourers, had brought up Jirayuth in a small, breeze-block home with a tin roof. Looking round their one tiny room, where piles of clothes, dog baskets and an old washing machine vied for space, Orawan burst into tears. “Our daughter couldn’t even bear to be in our house,” said Wandee. Pratoom agrees. “I told her test results changed nothing. I still loved her and no-one was going to take her away from us.”
Since then, the families’ sadness has turned to anger and they are desperate for answers. Dr Wirat Kiatmayka, from the Provincial Health Centre in Trang, admits it is a mystery how it happened. The hospital’s current policy is to tag wristbands to babies’ arms as soon as they’re born, but neither mother can remember that policy being in place ten years ago. Although an inquiry is taking place and the children are being offered counseling, it seems unlikely anyone will be found legally responsible for the mix-up. Documents that could help were thrown out a long time ago. And under Thai law, there is a ten-year limit for bringing legal actions, which has now expired.
Both families agree it’s in the 10-year-olds interests to see their biological parents as often as possible, and that ultimately the decision about who they want to live with will be theirs. But for now, their main focus is to help the children come to terms with the truth. “We may not be Orawan’s real parents, and they may not be Jirayuth’s,” says Pratoom, “but we are the parents they love. They don’t want to leave us.”