Jane Radika was searching for answers. Approaching 50, she had become reflective about life and yearned to know more about the circumstances of her adoption, from an orphanage in Bangladesh to a small Cornish town in England.
“I was only five weeks old when I came to the UK, so I have no recollection of it. From what I have learned, my mum gave birth to me in the Mother Teresa orphanage in Dhaka. Unfortunately, I have conflicting information – her name may be on my Bangladeshi birth certificate or it may not. It has been lost, which is heartbreaking, but apparently the orphanage has a copy.”
Jane knew almost nothing of Bangladesh growing up and online searches got her only so far. She felt drawn to visit, but the pandemic and personal circumstance had made the prospect seem distant. One morning, she decided to write a letter to the Guardian:
“Dear Thaslima, I came across some of your articles and wondered if you could help. I was adopted into the UK from Bangladesh in 1972 by a British family. I grew up not knowing anything about my past, except that I was a ‘war baby’ and that my birth mother was a Birangona. I want to know if there are others out there like me. Who are they? Where did they go? Can you help?”
There were others out there, thousands around the world, adopted from Bangladesh in the 1970s, many on their own search for the truth. Most had little or no information about the circumstances of their adoption or birth parents. Except for one unifying detail.
Bangladesh was declared an independent state in December 1971, nine months after Pakistan launched a brutal crackdown on Bengalis seeking self-rule in what was then East Pakistan. It was a period of widespread violence: estimates range from 300,000 to 500,000 killed through to the Bangladesh government’s figure of 3 million.
Despite the scale, Bangladesh’s war is little known outside the region. One inglorious fact is that it gave one of the first documented examples of rape as a weapon of war – between 200,000 and 400,000 women are said to have been victims.
The result was thousands of babies; again estimates vary, but 25,000 pregnancies are thought to have resulted. Women who had been captured by Pakistani troops, raped and tortured, emerged traumatised, in desperate need of medical care and, in many cases, pregnant.
To integrate rape survivors back into society, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, prime minister and founding father of Bangladesh, introduced legislation to allow late-term abortions and passed the Abandoned Children order, making the Ministry of Social Welfare statutory guardian for children born of rape. An international adoption campaign began to find homes for thousands of “war babies”.
Raped women were given the honorific title of Birangona – meaning war heroine – in an attempt to mitigate their social ostracism. Jane’s mother was among them.
“The only information I have is that my mother was raped during the war of liberation,” says Jane. “I know nothing of what happened to her afterwards. In my mind, my life started when I was adopted, but that isn’t so, there was my time in Bangladesh and what happened to my mum when I was created – the violence.”
Nayanika Mookherjee, a professor at Durham University who has written extensively about Birangona women, describes the conflicting experiences of those who endured forced pregnancy at the hands of Pakistani soldiers. “Some women had gladly gone through abortion, relieved not to have to bear a Pakistani baby; others wanted to keep their babies but were made to undergo abortions. There were those who had endured nine months of hatred towards the pregnancy they carried … Some women cried when their newborn children were given away, while others did not even look at their babies.”
Jane was one of the first adopted children to go to England, arriving in the summer of 1972. Mike King and his wife had been trying to adopt a child in Britain when, one February morning, they read an article in the Guardian by the late Peter Preston describing the crisis of abandoned babies in Bangladesh. “It was almost as though our eyes met at the end of that article. And we said, this is it, this is what we ought to do,” says King.
By July, King was on his way to Bangladesh to adopt a daughter. He agreed to escort another baby back on behalf of a couple who were unable to travel due to illness. That couple became Jane’s adoptive parents.
King’s recollections of Bangladesh at the time, recovering from war and in monsoon season, are of a country in chaos. A UN representative vetted King and helped him navigate the emergent adoption system. He found himself in the courtyard of the Mother Teresa orphanage in Old Dhaka, holding two red baby carriers, waiting to be processed by the nuns. “They were incredibly kind and receptive,” says King. “They were keen to help – I suspect more for the children’s sake than mine.”
Taken to the nursery, King was shocked to see row upon row of wicker cradles, each holding a baby. Some were being fed while others were being changed: one was on a saline rehydration drip. It was overwhelming, says King: “The sheer number of war babies was difficult to fathom. It was heartbreaking.”
Dressed in a white gown and asleep in a corner was Jane; born in the orphanage a few weeks earlier. King instinctively felt the need to choose her, the youngest in the nursery. The babies were so small he only needed one of the carriers for both.
Several days of “manic activity” and stressful bureaucracy followed. “I spent hours in the offices of various civil servants getting approval. This was all very new to them, and they were not always quite sure if I needed someone else’s approval, as well as theirs.” Finally, King and the babies boarded the long flight back to the UK.
That year, thousands of war babies were adopted in countries including Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Canada. It is estimated that 5,000 were born, though the true figure is likely much higher. After the war, the sisters of the Mother Teresa orphanage would search the streets of Dhaka for abandoned babies and turn up at abortion clinics asking mothers to go through with pregnancies and hand unwanted babies to the orphanage. Many of the babies did not survive or were considered too frail to travel abroad.
As King arrived in Dhaka, he was told that a plane carrying the first war babies to leave the country had just left for Canada. Shikha Cappuccino, 51, was among them.
Hers is a remarkable survival story. In the aftermath of the war, women would often take abortion into their own hands if they could not, or were too fearful, to access a clinic – sometimes losing their own lives in the process.
Shikha was born at seven months, weighing only two pounds, after a failed abortion attempt. When Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino, missionaries arranging adoptions for families at home in Canada, heard about Shikha, they decided to adopt her themselves. “She had the tiniest hands and feet,” say the couple from their home in Maxville, Ontario. “She was so little, the nuns were feeding her with an eye dropper.”
The Cappuccinos transported 15 babies from the orphanage; the first time an Air India flight had carried so many unaccompanied infants. “My husband and I were amazed by the support we received from the Bangladeshi government, which was so very new at the time,” says Bonnie. “The babies didn’t have passports but were allowed to leave the country using a single sheet of paper with each of their names on it, one line after another. This acted as a group passport, stamped and signed by the appropriate officials.”
“I often wonder about the other babies that were left behind and what happened to them,” says Shikha. “I feel extremely fortunate to have been adopted by Fred and Bonnie, who gave me another chance at life.”
Not everyone feels the same. “When you’re a brown kid adopted from a developing country by white folks, everyone sees what you’ve gained but not what you’ve lost,” says Kohinoor Nordberg, who was adopted by a Norwegian couple.
Nordberg was not a newborn when she reached the orphanage and remembers her mother. “I remember sitting on her hip, I remember sitting on her back,” she says. According to the nuns, she was found abandoned on the streets of Dhaka.
No one knows her birthdate, though her adoption certificate says she was three years and four months in 1976, when she was adopted. “Maybe I was older [than I looked], because I was malnourished,” says Nordberg.
But Nordberg believes the information provided about her before she was adopted is unreliable. For a long time she referred to herself as a war baby, and this could be true as adoption from Bangladesh was still happening in 1976 even though the critical period had passed.
“There is no straight definition of a war baby,” says Mustafa Chowdhury, author of Picking up the Pieces, a book about what happened to adopted Bangladeshi children in Canada. “The term war baby and war orphan are used interchangeably. At one point the government began to refer to them as ‘abandoned babies’ with no restriction to the period in which the babies were conceived and born.”
The Abandoned Children order was specifically to allow the speedy passage of babies to families and was still being cited on adoption papers in 1976 for hundreds passing through the country’s children’s homes. It was common for children of three, four and five to be adopted abroad.
Nordberg knows little about her life before she arrived in Norway. “My adoption erased my Bengali identity; my language, my culture and any chance of connection with my birth mother,” she says. “I grew up without seeing people like me, and didn’t fit in at home or elsewhere.” Nordberg has failed to find her mother. “It’s like she never existed,” she says.
Two years after she first asked for help to find other war babies, Jane finally visited Bangladesh. Although, technically it was her second time in the country, everything felt new. “Exhilarating, crazy, fun, emotional,” she says, describing her feelings when she arrived in Dhaka last February. “I really, really absolutely loved it. And the trip has answered lots of questions. And then more questions came in.”
Jane visited the Mother Teresa orphanage on Islampur Road, where she was picked out for adoption decades ago, and was greeted by senior missionary nun Sister Xavier. After some initial small talk, Jane asked to see her records. The nuns appeared reluctant at first but then left the room. Sister Xavier reappeared holding a large book and Jane began to scan the pages, going all the way back to her date of birth in 1972.
There were names of a number of babies listed as having gone to Canada and Jane gasped as she found her own, recorded neatly in blue ink. The sisters crowded round excitedly, but Jane felt only relief. “When you’re adopted, you only really know what you are told. This confirms I am a war baby and that I was indeed here, at this orphanage in Bangladesh, once upon a time. This is where my story began.”
But there was no information regarding Jane’s birth mother. In the column headed Parents Address, it read Women’s Rehabilitation Programme; a common entry to conceal the mother’s name. Jane also discovered that in 1975, part of the orphanage collapsed and a lot of documentation was destroyed.
“I’ll never actually know where I’m from until I find my birth mother, which I don’t think is possible. I’m afraid to search for her only to learn that I’m too late as she may already be dead, like so many other Birangona women,” says Jane.
Afterwards, Jane wandered through the orphanage and visited the room where Mike King saw her in her crib. There were other babies there, orphans or abandoned children. “It’s upsetting to see so many children still here, some of whom are disabled, which breaks my heart.”
Walking from room to room, a young boy shyly approached her to play. The two sat together for a little while and took selfies on her phone.
Later, Jane also visited a group of Birangona women living in Tejgaon, in the centre of Dhaka. In a small house, she was introduced as the daughter of a Birangona to three elderly women who were waiting. The women began to cry as they took it in turns to embrace Jane, who was also crying. One woman stroked Jane’s face while another took her into her arms and whispered a protection prayer over her: “May Allah always watch over you my child.”
The Birangona women were grateful that Jane had travelled so far to visit them and insisted she ate with them, hurriedly bringing out small plates of shingara, a fried triangular pastry with a spicy potato filling, and shutki – fermented dried fish. These are traditional Bengali delicacies that Jane was trying for the first time. “My God, it’s delicious!” she said, spooning shutki into her mouth without realising how spicy it was. The women joked that Jane’s tolerance of spice – or lack of it – would be a test of how Bengali she is: one she passed successfully.
After an hour or so, it is time to go. Though brief, it was an encounter filled with mutual love and respect between strangers, a remarkable moment of bonding over a tragic shared experience.
“I felt welcomed, loved and accepted. My heart is at peace. I feel honoured to have met these wonderful women and it is something that will stay with me forever,” Jane says, with tears in her eyes. “I am their daughter and they are my mothers. They have filled a hole in my heart with love.”
“Bangladesh, my story and my association with it has always been shrouded in violence and pain. Connected and never forgotten. But finally I know where I came from, how it looks, smells and feels – and I feel like I have come home,” she says. “Bangladesh and I were created at the same time; it is a piece of me and I am a piece of it – and nothing will ever change that.”