War babies and Bangladesh’s tragedy of abortion and adoption

Victory’s silence

Linked with Bina D’Costa – Australia.

Published on OneWorld.net, by Bina D’Costa, December 2008.

Bangladesh celebrates its birth on 16 December 1971 – now celebrated as Victory Day, a day of reminiscence for citizens of the new nation. But many memories are troubling, especially those of the ‘war babies’ – children born during or after the War of Liberation, as a result of the often-planned and systematic rape of Bangladeshi women. If we turn back the pages of Bangladesh’s history, we can get some rare glimpses of the marginalised; but there is still complete silence when it comes to the babies of war …

… An erased past:

Some of the interviews conducted by this writer suggest that social workers and medical and humanitarian practitioners often employed their own personal strategies, based on their understanding of the realities that surrounded them. Ibrahim, for instance, supported the women in their silence. M encouraged and expedited international adoption. B implemented state policies regarding women’s reintegration. And Davis carried out the abortion programmes according to the state’s policies.

While scattered narratives point to the experiences of children who fought during the war and were raped by the Pakistan Army or brutally killed, almost nothing is known about the destiny of the war babies. By now, they have largely disappeared from the official history of Bangladesh. The state acted as the moral agent, deciding who could stay and who could leave. Although the social workers and humanitarian and medical practitioners considered themselves to be working in the best interests of the war babies and their mothers, the assumption that they should be separated ultimately deprived the babies a chance to be raised by their birth mothers. This also generated additional trauma for already distressed women.

Today, there is very little information about these children – about how they have developed, about how they often lived without social recognition within their societies, about what happened to those who were adopted by people from other countries. In recent years, the humanitarian community has shown interest in integrating children born out of sexual violence during conflict through post-conflict humanitarian efforts, migration policies and refugee-settlement programmes. This writer sent an appeal to several adoption agencies, Bengali websites and newspapers to talk about the war babies, but only a few of them wanted their stories to be public. The following e-mail was sent by one website owner: “I had a lousy dad, who just insulted me … I tried to commit suicide four years ago … I often wonder why I am here in Canada, adopted by parents who divorced three months after I was adopted … I hated being a kid, and I am angry at Bangladesh for not taking care of me when I needed it most. I don’t have any roots and that makes me cry. So that is why I am trying to learn more about where I was born.”

There is no way of knowing the fate of all the adopted war babies. Undoubtedly, however, their past and the trauma of violence that is linked to their births have haunted nearly all of them. Perhaps, by tracing through their histories, it could be possible for Bangladesh to obtain crucial data regarding its own interlinked past. But in this, it must be understood that it is not ethical to try to find these individuals, nearly all of whom have no intention to be found. Instead, it is more important to understand how, three and a half decades ago, the state, families and communities united to construct a destiny for Bangladeshi women and the war babies. This understanding would also benefit the movement in Bangladesh to seek redress for war crimes committed in 1971.

Bina D’Costa is a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Justice at the Australian National University. (full long text).

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