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‘I was told I could visit. Then she went missing’: the Bangladeshi mothers who say their children were adopted without consent

Thu 25 Jan 2024 12.15 GMT

Photographs by Noor Alam

by Thaslima Begum in Bangladesh

Women living in camps for refugees of Bangladesh’s war of independence were told a local care home would look after their children. Decades on, many are still searching for them

More than four decades have passed, but Sayrun Nisa still cries for her son as if she lost him yesterday. In 1977, she had been taking care of her child and sick husband at home when there was a knock at the door. She opened it to find two people who claimed they were from Terres Des Hommes Netherlands (TDHn), an organisation that operated in the Dattapara camp for people displaced in the Bangladesh war of independence, where she lived.

“They started telling me about a children’s home they were running,” says Sayrun, now 80. “They said they could take care of my son for me and give him a good education. I had no reason to doubt them as they were from what I thought was a respectable organisation.”

Sayrun recalls feeling unsure as she watched her six-year-old playing in the corner. But when she discussed it with her husband, they felt it might not be a bad idea. “My husband had been sick for a while and was unemployed. If we put our son in the home, it would mean that I could find work,” she says.

Sayrun Nisa thought her son would be given a good education at the children’s home that took him in but she never saw him again

The couple were poor and lived in a hut with a roof that often leaked when it rained. “There were days where we struggled to eat,” recalls Sayrun. A week later, she took her son to a children’s home she believed to be run by TDHn. Sayrun thought the staff might show her around. But instead a woman at the gate asked her to hand over her child and leave. “I gave him over with only the clothes on his back,” says Sayrun, holding back tears.

The following weekend, Sayrun returned to the school but was told her son was no longer there. “I demanded to speak to someone and told them I wouldn’t leave until I knew where my son was,” she says. “I waited for over an hour until an officer came to the gate and told me to go home.” When Sayrun refused, she says the guard pointed a gun in her face.

Sayrun told her husband what had happened and the next day they filed a complaint at the police station. “Days turned into weeks and nothing was done,” she says. “I kept going back to the children’s home and then one day, they offered me a job. I took it thinking it might be a way to find my son.”

Sayrun began working for the children’s home but couldn’t find any answers to her questions. One day, she learned from a colleague that a group of children had been sent abroad. “I asked if my son was among them and she told me yes. I fainted on the spot.”

She was the most beautiful little girl. I couldn’t believe she was gone

Rezia Begum

Sayrun often dreamed that her son would return. “I’d hear a knock at the door and my heart would jump with joy,” she says. “One day, I was on a bus in Dhaka and thought I saw a young man that looked just like him. I jumped off and chased the man down the street but it wasn’t him. People thought I had lost my mind.”

The fate of Sayrun’s son was not an isolated incident. In the town of Tongi, on the outskirts of Dhaka, a number of women claim that their children disappeared in similar circumstances.

All the women interviewed for the Guardian say they left their children in what they believed would be the temporary care of the children’s home run by TDHn, in Tongi, only to later discover the children had been adopted abroad.

TDHn says it did not run a children’s home in Tongi at that time and that, although the perception that the organisation performed adoptions was then persistent in Bangladesh, it was entirely incorrect. “The allegation that local [TDHn] staff were involved in misleading parents to give up their children for adoption is not new. Investigations conducted at the time concluded that the claims were not substantiated,” a spokesperson says.

A number of investigations into the allegations took place in the 1970s, including by TDHn, which concluded that they were “false and baseless”. None of the mothers whose children went missing were interviewed for the investigation. Police in Bangladesh have launched an investigation after reports of the allegations by the Guardian last year.

Rezia Begum, who says her three-month-old daughter was taken from her

Rezia Begum says she was approached in 1977 by men claiming to work for TDHn offering to take her child, but she politely declined. A week later, she laid her three-month-old down to sleep and went to the bathroom but when she returned, her daughter was missing.

“I was only gone for a moment” says Rezia, now 72. She ran out of her house screaming, telling the neighbours what had just happened. “Everyone started to search the area. We went from door to door until nightfall but we couldn’t find her anywhere.”

From left: Rezia Begum holds a picture of her daughter, who she was reunited with decades after her 1977 disappearance; Aasia Begum’s daughter Falani was six years old when she went missing

For weeks, Rezia sat in the same spot she last held her daughter; the sound of her baby’s cries still ringing in her ears. “I just wanted her back,” says Rezia, tears streaming down her face. “She was the most beautiful little girl – with these big brown eyes and a small button nose. I couldn’t believe she was just gone.” It would be more than 40 years before Rezia was finally reunited with her daughter thanks to the pioneering help of a campaigning group of Bangladeshi adoptees. Others who have lost their children are still waiting.

Aasia Begum, now in her 80s, was a single mother living in the Dattapara camp with her two young daughters. The elder one, Falani, was six years old – a chatty, joyful girl who liked to play with the other children on her street.

“I would sing them lullabies and longed for them to grow up and become educated and successful,” says Aasia. So when she heard about the children’s centre around the corner from her house, she happily enrolled her elder child.

“I was told I could see her every weekend and that in a few years, she could return home,” she says. But Aasia would soon learn that would not be the case. One day, she went to drop off some bananas at the school but found the gates locked. “I could see Falani playing in the courtyard and called out to her. But a guard quickly came and told me I had to go.”

Her daughter had also seen her and ran up to speak to her but the two were separated by force. “She went missing after that,” says Aasia.

  • Jahanara Begum’s two-year-old son Montu went missing in 1977

Jahanara Begum’s son Montu was two years old when he went missing in 1977. “He learned to walk quickly and would bump into everything in his way,” she recalls. “Even the chickens in the courtyard would run from him.”

These are memories from decades ago that Jahanara clings to: they are the only proof she really has that her child even existed. He too disappeared after Jahanara left him in what she thought would be temporary care at a children’s home she believed was run by TDHn. “For a long time, I was worried I might forget the little things. So I would talk about him to anyone that would listen.”

  • Nur Jahan’s son Bilal was taken when he was only six months old

For years, Jahanara wondered if it might have been better if her son had died. “Then I could mourn and find some sort of peace,” she says. “But when you don’t know where your child is, you desperately hold on to the idea that they could still be out there somewhere – and may perhaps return.”

Nur Jahan, 78, has no idea what her son Bilal looks like. The last time she saw him was in 1976, when he was just six months old; a small baby with big eyes and a dimpled cheek. “I would carry him around everywhere with me … but now he lives inside this photograph,” says Nur, holding up a photo of a group of Bangladeshi children arriving at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam in 1976; an air steward holds up a baby in a basket, and though the photo is not clear, Nur is convinced the baby is hers.

  • Nur Jahan has kept all the documents relating to her son Bilal; the photograph of Bangladeshi children at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, one of whom she believes to be her son

Like the other mothers, Nur too claims she was visited by people claiming to work for TDHn. After handing her baby over for care, Nur was able to visit him the week after. “Everything seemed normal at first, I even saw other parents and children I recognised.” But a week later, she was not allowed in. “I started shouting. There was a broom nearby and I picked it up and threatened them with it,” recalls Nur. Two guards came out and aggressively pushed her away. She fell to the ground crying.

Nur would never see her baby again. Later, she filed a police report and approached local media for help but nothing came of it. “I still pray he comes back to me,” she says, tucking the photo away into a small cabinet. It’s one of the few possessions she owns, but certainly her most cherished.

A spokesperson for TDHn described the women’s stories as “heartbreaking”, but that “the underlying allegation of wrongdoing by Terre des Hommes Netherlands is therefore wholly incorrect. Terre des Hommes Netherlands did not run any school with boarding facilities. The suggestion that the children stayed at a Terre des Hommes-school or home therefore is wrong.”

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