I ONCE read somewhere that there are a handful of languages that have words to describe a parent whose child dies. There’s ‘vilomah’ in Sanskrit but the word means ‘against natural order’ because it is against nature for a parent to bury a child. Yet innumerable people experience the death of their child — to disease, disasters, maybe even negligence, their own or institutional.
Imagine then what it’s like to not know whether your child is alive or dead. This is what some mothers in Bangladesh wondered all their lives after their young children were forcibly taken from them in the 1970s, according to a searing exposé in a three-part audio series by The Guardian. Reporters Thaslima Begum and Rosie Swash uncovered a scandal whose impact can be felt five decades on. Mothers, likely too poor, enrolled their children in what they thought was a boarding shelter for their schooling and care, only to discover a few days later that their children were gone. Many of those children were adopted by families abroad but without their parents’ knowledge, let alone consent.
Bibi Haseenar has fleeting memories of her early childhood in Bangladesh but clear memories of being on a plane to the Netherlands in 1976, aged four — small and malnourished for her age, according to The Guardian — with her brother, and no idea what was happening. “They tied me to the seat with a rope because I could not be calmed. I wasn’t allowed to go to my brother in the rows ahead; I just felt so alone,” she told the newspaper. She was then adopted by a Dutch family — first separately and then reunited with her brother because she was inconsolable without him. She grew up thinking her mother, Samina, did not want her only to learn so many years later that her mother never stopped looking.
While Haseenar would learn the truth in 2017 about her forced adoption through a documentary, and would reunite with her elder brother Kader and family in Dhaka as an adult, her mother had died a decade earlier. Kader, who was 16 when his siblings were taken from them, says “fighting the system for so long took its toll on [my mother]”. He also says “in the process of losing my siblings, I lost my mother too”.
Imagine what it’s like to not know whether one’s child is alive.
Almost every culture has a variation of a saying that does not wish a child’s death on anyone and I can’t imagine what Samina and other mothers endured, not knowing where their children were, going everywhere in their search and being threatened by the powerful institutions to shut up. Many organisations and governments have been investigating this boarding school scandal but the damage to families cannot be reversed.
These forced abductions aren’t unique to Bangladesh. Parents too poor to care for their children following the devastating American war in Vietnam, were reportedly hoodwinked into giving their children up; they didn’t understand they would lose contact with their children. The same happened in Cambodia in the late 1990s as reported by a filmmaker who found many of the 1,000 children adopted and sent abroad were not orphans.
There are innumerable stories of illegal adoptions from developing countries but I’m talking about Bangladesh because we have yet to understand the scale of damage that took place prior to its independence — and our role in it. There are so many unopened wounds around Partition and then Bangladesh’s independence that must be examined and somehow healed, though I don’t know how someone can heal from trauma and violence. Academics and historians will have answers on how nations have addressed their collective past traumas.
Bangladesh, like the aforementioned countries ravaged by war, witnessed heavy floods which destroyed crops three years after its independence. An estimated 1.5 million died in one of the worst famines in modern history. Poor parents thought they were placing their children in temporary care when that was not the case. You don’t need to be a parent to imagine what it feels like not to know what happened to your child.
What does retribution look like? Using DNA kits and social media, adoptees in the Netherlands have been able to find relatives in Bangladesh but is that justice? Haseenar has filed a complaint against the Dutch government about her forced adoption and awaits a decision. It may help prevent future tragedies.
I wonder if there are lessons for parents whose children have been forcibly disappeared in Pakistan. The protests, governments’ inquiries, a 2022 court ruling blaming the state for enforced disappearances don’t seem to yield results. It is perhaps one of the most contentious issues in the country. I hope when the Supreme Court takes up the case, we will see a live transmission of the proceedings. Families deserve answers. We must wish justice for them.
The writer researches newsroom culture in Pakistan.
X (formerly Twitter): @LedeingLady
Published in Dawn, September 24rd, 2023