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The Journey of the 1971 War Babies: A New Home beyond Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers
Sneha Biswas

In this essay, Sneha attempts to shed some light on the history and stories of fifteen war babies born out of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, who eventually find homes in Canada. Drawing upon Mustafa Chowdhury's book Picking Up the Pieces: 1971 War Babies' Odyssey from Bangladesh to Canada, Sneha engages with ideas of ethnicity, identity, and fostering community-feeling away from one's home.

In this essay, I have tried to put forward the extraordinary story of the fifteen war babies of the 1971 Liberation War - from their agonising history of origin, to their abandonment and ultimately finding a new home in Canada. This writing is a summarized essay produced from my reading of Mustafa Chowdhury’s book Picking Up the Pieces: 1971 War Babies’ Odyssey from Bangladesh to Canada. My parents were first-hand victims of the 1971 Liberation War and immigrated to India after losing everything to the war, and so this history of Bangladesh remains as a mark of significance to my identity. Though I have not visited Bangladesh till date, I have always felt a connection with the country. Upon reading about the stories of the ‘war-babies’ in Mustafa Chowdhury’s book, I realised that not many people know about them as they have been made invisible from the chapters of Bangladesh Liberation War. I am trying to draw attention to this incredible part of Bangladesh’s history which has otherwise remained largely untouched.

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On 26 March, 1971, the West Pakistani military began a nine month long campaign of massacre with the dispatch of Operation Searchlight to crush the rise of the Bengali nationalist and self-determination movement with a demand for the sovereignty of East Pakistan. Perilous forces were deployed to kill millions, women were systematically abused in an orderly mission of destructive rape and the country was thrown into a profound struggle as the whole world witnessed this unreasonable mercilessness of the war. 

There are gaps in the official history of the 1971 War of Liberation of Bangladesh in which thousands of Bengali men, women, and children lost their lives. The traumatic historical events of sexual violence - abduction, confinement, rape, and murder, forced pregnancies - inflicted on women by the Pakistani army during the Bengalis’ struggle for independence, led to the birth and abandonment of many “unwanted” babies of the liberation war. Social stigmatisation and shame associated with these traumatic events led to the lack of documentation especially with regard to matters of sexual violence. There is an abundance of extensive writings on the struggle of the Liberation war in the treasury of Bangladesh’s literature but much has been left out about the circumstances of women and their abandoned children, as most of the writings have remained limited to the politics of “patriotism” and “nationalism” in light of the changed reality of the newly born country. Nonetheless, tremendous efforts have been made by Bangladeshi journalists and scholars like Nilima Ibrahim, Rounaq Jahan, Jahanara Imam, Shahriar Kabir, Muntasir Mamun to give voice to the struggles of these women of war or ‘birangonas’ (heroines) and had successfully encouraged many of them to come out to tell their stories.

 

Three prominent female writers of India and Bangladesh, Yasmin Saikia, Nayanika Mookherjee, and Bina D’Costa, respectively, have undertaken significant work on the disparaging and damaging effects of rape on the women and their children born in the aftermath of the 1971 war. They have been working laboriously in an attempt to fill in the gaps in the historical narratives of the Bangladesh’s War of Independence by writing about the untold story of the rape victims in a patriarchal society like Bangladesh and bringing the issue of the war-children to the forefront. D’Costa has pointed out the problem of the lack of documentation on the ‘war-babies' in her essay “Victory’s Silence” published in the The Daily Star --- “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.”

Canada based writer Mustafa Chowdhury makes a significant attempt to document the forgotten history of these unrecognised children of the Liberation War in his book Picking Up the Pieces: 1971 War Babies Odyssey from Bangladesh to Canada (2015). Like D’Costa, Mustafa Chowdhury readily acknowledges in the opening chapter of his book that the stories of the babies born of war, still remains a vital, unexplored area in the historical narrative of the War of Liberation of Bangladesh. In this book, we find in great detail the story of the incredible journey of fifteen war-babies who were flown to Canada from Mother Teresa's Dhaka based Missionaries of Charity (Shishu Bhaban), then the statutory guardian of these war babies, with the Montreal-based Families For Children (FFC) team led by Reverend Fred Cappuccino and his wife Bonnie Cappuccino.

The discomfort associated with condition of birth of the war-babies who were allegedly fathered by the oppressive Pakistani military personnel resulted in social derision which forced several women to commit suicide in Occupied Bangladesh. Many other women, immediately after their release from the army, voluntarily disappeared to avoid the ostracism from their community. To tackle the situation, non-profit organizations, missionaries, charities and government aided programmes came forward. Arrangements were made for the adoption of a number of war babies to the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the United States of America, and Canada with the personal efforts of Mother Teresa and her colleagues at the Missionaries of Charity and Families for Children (FFC) which was a Canada based charitable association for global and interracial adoption. The newly formed government had enabled the facility of abortion, keeping in mind the circumstances of the mothers who were already suffering from post-traumatic symptoms and were vulnerable to social stigmatisation. Sr. Margaret Mary, then Superior of the Missionaries of Charity, ensured all incoming clients at Seva Sadan that proper care would be taken of all babies who would survive the abortion attempts. Makeshift shelters in addition to Seva Sedan, Nari Punarbasan Board, Shishu Bhavan, and baby homes were housing countless numbers of violated women and their newborns in anonymity. 

Fifteen War-babies Find a New Home

To facilitate the adoption process of the war-babies abroad, the governmental administration initiated the Bangladesh Abandoned Children (Special Provisions) Order in 1972. Many infertile and fertile couples worldwide responded to the opportunity and a few of the children were brought to Canada, United States of America and Australia for adoption. A group of ordinary Canadian couples took extraordinary steps to embrace some of the abandoned war babies and were successful in bringing them to Canada all the way from Bangladesh, bearing all the legal hardships at their own cost. Once the tedious but necessary paperwork was processed, the Montreal's Families For Children (FFC) left for Canada on July 19, 1972 with fifteen war-babies who were being awaited eagerly by their adoptive parents on the other side of the world. 

After long hours of exhausting flights from Dhaka to New Delhi to New York, the team finally arrived at Toronto and Dorval airport on July 20, 1972. The adoption project became possible primarily through the policy observed with the aid of the Canadian government in 1960, which marked the World Refugee Year. It was the culmination of a year of hope, planning and tireless efforts of a group of Canadians. There was heavy media coverage in Canadian media, major newspapers, especially of Ontario and Quebec, carried headline articles on their arrival, congratulating the adoptive parents and welcoming the infants in Canada. 

The Desire of the Adoptive Parents

The adoptive parents were Canadian middle class couples, and most of them had already adopted other children belonging from different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. The parents had hoped that such an environment would allow the children to grow up in a diverse, multicultural familial environment with the secure feeling of belonging, which would benefit their children in attaining a strong sense of human identity as adults. 

The names of the children and their respective adoptive parents are given below.

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Source: Mustafa Chowdhury’s book Picking Up the Pieces: 1971 War Babies’ Odyssey from Bangladesh to Canada, page no. 64

As it was a mandatory legal requirement in Canada to add the family’s surname with the children’s name, the parents carefully chose their names, keeping in mind not to erase their child's Bengali identity. So they kept the names given by the orphanage authorities back in Bangladesh while reframing their new ‘Canadian’ names. The list of their former and their later adoptive names is given below.

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Source: Mustafa Chowdhury’s book Picking Up the Pieces: 1971 War Babies’ Odyssey from Bangladesh to Canada, page no. 75

Why did these ordinary middle class couples choose to adopt babies born from the violations of war and from in a country so foreign to them both geographically and culturally? Having asked such questions during his interviews with the parents, Mustafa Chowdhury states in his book that he learned from the parents that they were greatly influenced by the ideals of their time – the 1960s in North America which represented an era of uprisings to gain civil rights, ending discrimination in society, anti-Vietnam war protests, and the dream of Martin Luther King. In 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to adopt a Multiculturalism policy which embodied in law the principle of racial and cultural equality with the force of law. The parents understood multiculturalism as that which would help to create an inclusive society in which Canadians of all backgrounds can participate and meaningfully contribute to the ongoing social revolution. During their interviews with Chowdhary, they recalled how they wanted to live up to the ideals of equality and justice. Upon seeing the brutality of the massacre in Occupied Bangladesh and pictures of Bangladeshi war babies on newspapers, magazines, and television programs, it drew their outrage. They felt that they should do whatever little they could for these war-babies who were motherless and homeless; Chowdhury writes that the “courage and strong conviction needed to adopt and raise war babies stemmed from such deeply held views” (127).

 

When asked about the parents’ approach in communicating with their children about their adoptive status, they maintained that there was never any pretense that they were the biological parents of the child. They were honest about their adoption status and history. Given that the racial difference was clearly visible, they thought it would cause negative effects on their children if they didn't know the truth. They were aware of the distinction between biological and sociological parenthood and they assigned their duty as the latter. However, the parents were careful to keep in mind not to overburden the child with the anxieties that accompanies the backdrop to an adoption story. The message the parents had for their children was that one should accept one’s adoptive status and be proud of it. As the children were growing up and becoming inquisitive about their origin, the parents were supportive of their children’s interests in their homeland throughout their life. 

Donna and Del Wolsey, one of the adoptive couples, formed a support group called Canadopt within months after the arrival of the babies to help the parents and extended family members to overcome their lack of experience with the racial background of the war babies. The support group also became a resource for couples across Canada, providing a meaningful support system for children adopted from overseas. Eventually it became a platform to engage with the government to facilitate a smooth process of international adoption. As Donna saw it, “the support group was formed with a view to banding together to know each other and to encourage interaction among them. As well, to battle government red tape that could hinder international adoption.” [1]

In 1989, Donna Wolsey organized a grand trip for the Ontario adoptees to visit Bangladesh. The Wolseys, the Morralls, and the Goods recall in their interview how they still remember witnessing their children’s exuberance in the same spirit. Wolsey's daughter, Amina regularly attended events hosted by the Bengali community in the Ontario’s London area.

Children's Accounts

The children’s narratives remained very much aligned with that of their adoptive parents. In the interviews over a number of years between the author and the adoptee, the children shared openly about their feelings, their view of racial and ethnic identification, and their life history. With no hesitation of any kind, the war babies talked in their interviews about how they had embraced their adoptive parents as their guardians, always had a loving, respectful relationship with them and felt the “togetherness” in the family. Despite their struggles with the reality of their origin, they were glad to have known their past. They had grown up to become one family, learning their respective adoptive family histories, customs, religions and values. By adolescence, as the war-children grew mature enough to engage with the consequences of the Liberation war, they understood their mothers’ situation and mostly expressed contemptuous attitudes towards their putative fathers. They accepted the fact that there may not be a possibility of reuniting with their birthmothers due to the lack of documentation but remained deeply intrigued by their birth-nation Bangladesh and its struggle for independence. 

In 1989, through the initiative of Del and Donna Wolsey, five of the war-children - Rani, Ryan, Lara, Rajib and Amina - visited their homeland for the first time. During their seven day trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh, they visited the Shishu Bhavan where they were born. Having witnessed the stark reality of Bangladesh with their own eyes, they reached a new sense of awareness that brought all of them closer with a sense of bonding. Upon returning, the war-children met arrangements of regular meetings and kept in touch with each other. 

Amongst these children of war, Ryan was the only one who delved deeper into their shared past. He developed a strong desire to find his birth mother and made a second trip to Bangladesh in 1991, at nineteen, and again in 1997, at the age of twenty-five, where he tried in vain to find his birth mother. With maturity he learned to come to terms with the fact that searching for his birth mother would be an excruciatingly painful journey which would lead to nowhere. During his interview with Mustafa, he assessed his situation - “My curiosity of my birth mother has changed. I now have a desire to know more and more about all the birth mothers – all 250,000 of them.” (139)

 

Rani, who grew up in a family of two children, had also become greatly preoccupied with knowing her roots at a point of time in her life. During her trip to Bangladesh, her visit to the orphanage premises gave her a new sense of personal power and a level of satisfaction. She said that she felt more engaged, as her visit to her country of birth helped her link herself with her unknown birthmother. 

Onil, Sikha, and Shama who grew up in a family of four adopted children, appeared to have great interest in their birth-land Bangladesh but maintained that they were happy and felt connected with their adoptive family. Lara appeared to be most at peace with her history. She said in her interview:

 

“In all these years, I have never really wondered about my past, my parents or a family I may have left behind in Bangladesh and I have never made any attempt to try to find them . . . To this day, I have not made any attempt to discover my family roots and it is unlikely that I will do so in the near future.” (Chowdhury 140)

Ryan remains a burning example of how childhood memories of where one is raised may override other memories and prepare one to identify oneself with, not where one is born but, instead, raised. Despite his demonstrably extraordinary and powerful mind in accepting the harsh reality of his birth and his life, Ryan chose to call himself “Canadian.” 

 

When asked if they had faced experiences of racism and discrimination, the war-babies recalled that most of them did not have memories of any overt hostility in their schools and universities. Yet, they mentioned how they would become self conscious about their appearance back in school as almost all of their classmates who were white looked different from them and recalled instances of hurtful remarks:

One of Amina’s experiences dates back to early years when she was the only brown kid in the school. When she was in grade one, there was a girl who had told all the other kids not to stand by her because she was “dirty,” probably referring to the color of her skin. Naturally, Amina was hurt. . . she now remembers it as rather an amusing experience that had caused mirth, to say the least. (Mustafa 147)

Lara recalled during her interview how she had “encountered cruel and ignorant children” who had called her “names, such as ‘dirty Paki’ and ‘brown cow” when she was a child. Onil recounted with a distinct memory of certain encounters of similar nature:

In my pre-teen years and in my teen years I experienced some events involving overt racism. It has always been in the form of name-calling. I always walked away. I found that simply avoiding a confrontation had worked the best and sometimes I joked with the verbal assailant and deescalated their hostility….When I was young, these comments made me wish that I were Caucasian too. I did not focus on the fact that I was different during these verbal assaults,” (Chowdhury 148) 

The Boonstra family recalls how people in public places would look at their son, Chris, curiously. They remember how, during their road trips to the United States, the border patrol would single out Chris while no questions were asked about the other four siblings because they were white. Some recollected how, on certain occasions, they were watched or stared at by curious onlookers and strangers around, or often they had to stand at counters waiting to be served.

Some parents talked about their encounters with strangers where racial diversity of the family often became a source of amusement because they used to be asked questions such as, “where did you get him or her from?” In such situations, one couple recalled often giving prompt and hilarious retorts like “through a mail-order catalogue” (Chowdhury 135) Though somewhat amusing, they said encounters of such nature had made them doubly careful, which, over the years, also made them more patient and less reactive.

 

What emerged from their narratives is that whether they have experienced or not, the war-children are aware that beneath the surface, many people harbor feelings that are mixed into prejudice and stereotype. We learn from Chowdhury’s assessment of his interviews with the children and their parents that although the adoptees grew up “seeing” the color of their skins being different from their parents, all of them identified strongly with their white parents and spoke their language. Both the parents and the children worked towards sustaining a happy and satisfied life and paid attention to the ideal of celebrating and treasuring the differences among the family members. Having lived in Canada all their lives, they are of the view that those who discriminate show a great lack of respect, compassion, and intelligence because they cannot see beyond the physical attributes of another person. They conclude that even the most loving family cannot be shielded from the harsh realities of prejudice and racism that still exist in Canadian society. Nevertheless, having been born and brought up in their Canadian families as infants, the war children mostly remained confident about their identity and self-image. 

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Illustrated by Sneha Biswas

References and Citations

[1] Donna said this in an interview with Mustafa Chowdhury at her home Komoka, Ontario, on December 29, 2005

Chowdhury, Mustafa. Picking Up the Pieces: 1971 War Babies’ Odyssey from Bangladesh to Canada. Xlibris, July 6, 2015.

Siddiqua, Fayeka Zabeen. “Remembering the Forgotten” The Daily Star, December 5, 2014.

Mookherjee, Nayanika. “Available Motherhood: Legal technologies, ‘state of exception’ and the dekinning of ‘war-babies’ in Bangladesh.”, August 1, 2007.

D’Costa, Bina. “Victory’s Silence.” The Daily Star, published in December, 2014. https://www.thedailystar.net/victorys-silence-53364

D’Costa, Bina. “1971: Rape and its consequences.” Interview with Dr. Geoffrey Davis, opinion.bdnews24.com, Dec 15, 2010. https://opinion.bdnews24.com/2010/12/15/1971-rape-and-its-consequences/

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Sneha Biswas is a self-taught art practitioner, currently doing her masters degree in Art history in Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati. She is deeply interested in the arts and cultural studies, likes to spend most of her time experimenting with visual perception and looking at things in general.