From the atrocities of the Liberation War rose a generation of war babies, infants born of rape to Bangladeshi mothers rejected by the stigmas of society, both defined by and abandoned by the throes of war.
What began as a very personal journey for Mustafa Chowdhury in the adoption of his Bangladeshi nephew, soon sent him down the path of discovery into something greater than his own experiences.
Mustafa Chowdhury’s book, “Picking up the Pieces: 1971 War Babies’ Odyssey from Bangladesh to Canada”, explores the narratives of 15 war babies who were given another chance at life.
The narrative of our Liberation War is often murky, distorted, and devastating. Within this lies a greater untold narrative of thousands of women who were assaulted and raped during a time of war.
But what of their children? The abandoned infants who fell between the crosshairs of war and stigma?
The author, a retired federal public servant of the Canadian government, has followed the war babies — now in their 40s — during the course of his research. Chowdhury’s work aims to explore their understanding of their origins and how this has affected their lives.
Mustafa Chowdhury spoke of his work during the programme “Meet the Author: Mustafa Chowdhury”, held on January 20 and organised by the department of English and the Humanities of BRAC University.
“Children of despair arrive home”
On 19 July 1972, 15 war babies from Bangladesh arrived in Canada. For those 15 infants, born in war-torn Bangladesh, Canada would be their home.
Their journey from Bangladesh to Canada was a victorious odyssey in itself.
The babies were about three months old, all premature and underweight. A total of 17 babies were meant to undertake the journey, but two were deemed too frail to travel. They died shortly after.
Their transport was funded by the public of Canada, with nurses volunteering to assist the babies during the flight. Upon their arrival, pictures of parents with their babies glazed over the newspapers; a ceremonious welcome embraced these 15 children into their new lives.
On the other hand, among the 21 newspapers of Bangladesh at the time, only the Bangladesh Observer had covered this.
Rebuilding the nation
There lies a distinction between a nation and a society.
In 1972, the rebuilding of the nation was the top priority for the government. In the process, it was understood that the war had left behind victims that our own society would reject.
The nation itself was unable to take on the responsibility for these children if their own societies were rejecting them. Due to certain social values and traditions, both the war babies and their mothers were alienated and uncared for by their own families and the collective community.
The children had to be given away.
Families for Children was the first team to arrive at Bangladesh for the adoption of the war babies.
The foster parents
Before the babies even met them, their soon-to-be foster parents were already creating an uproar in Canada. They certainly did put up a fight to adopt their new children.
One of the foster mothers compared her struggles during the adoption process to that of labour pains, and felt that it was too difficult for her to discuss.
Another woman had gone on a hunger strike for three days before the Canadian government acknowledged and responded to her adoption application.
Chowdhury asked these parents on why they had adopted these war babies of Bangladesh, given the numerous children already living in orphanages in Canada.
Their motivations were purely humanitarian. They were not adopting due to infertility issues; most of the parents already had biological children.
The orphans in Canada would be adopted by someone or the other, they said.
“But I felt that if I don’t adopt this child, no one else will. I wanted to give the child a chance to live.”
There were no medical documentation for the babies, except for their dates of birth. Many of them were survivors of failed abortions.
“Canadians, born in Bangladesh”
The war babies, now all grown up, are acutely aware of their origin.
“I’m a Canadian, born in Bangladesh.”
“I’m a war baby.”
According to Chowdhury, they feel no hesitation when stating this. In values, ethics, and mentality, they are Canadians. Only in their physical attributions and place of birth, could they be called Bengalis.
Their sense of attachment is symbolic.
Rayan, one of the war babies, had come back to Bangladesh and told his mother that Eid was just like Christmas; the gift-giving shenanigans and family gatherings. As he walked amongst a crowd, he reflected that he looked just the same as anyone else in the crowd, but felt immensely different.
“My brain is Canadian,” one of them had said.
When Chowdhury asked them if they would want to reconnect with their mothers, one of them had cut him off.
“Do you mean my biological mother? Because the mother who raised me is the only mother I know.”
Many replied saying that they were beyond the scope of reconnecting, being at a certain stage in their lives were they did not feel the need to, and felt whole and complete as they were.
“If I ever did meet my biological mother, I would say sorry for all the terrible things she had to experience. I would also thank her for giving me a chance to live, and not killing me.”
When asked about their biological fathers, they showed no respect but also exhibited no resentment.
The stigma that silences
Mustafa Chowdhury acknowledges that the 15 war babies had grown up in a Canadian society, in multicultural families with siblings of different ethnicity.
They had known from the start that they were adopted, but the stigmas existing in their society were different than ours. They can safely state that they are war babies without facing judgment.
In Bangladesh, it is not as easy for someone to come out and state that they are a war baby.
Afsan Chowdhury, a journalist who has conducted extensive research on the Liberation War, shared an experience where he met a war baby in Bangladesh.
He said that everyone in the village knew that he was a war baby and would not stigmatise him. Upon inquiring about the situation, he was told that the boy was poor and had no property.
Thus the stigma exists only when those who stigmatise stand to gain something from their target. So much of our societal framework is built upon the concept of property, that someone who is poor, in a way, is free of dishonour or shame.
Professor Firdous Azim further added that this stigma brings not only silence, but the added attachment of the idea of shame to women who have been raped.
On a broader nationalistic narrative, the victimisation of women during wars transcends personal wounds. It reaches into the sociocultural sphere, where violated women represent a violated nation. As a result, the stigma is pushed upon the Birongona and onto her children as well.
Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam closed the event, emphasising the importance of such research and the need for our society to reflect with empathy and understanding towards those who have been wronged during the war.
Mustafa Chowdhury’s book, “Picking up the Pieces: 1971 War Babies’ Odyssey from Bangladesh to Canada”, will be available in both Bangla and English at this year’s Ekushey Book Fair, held in February.