Bangladesh declared 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.
The nine months of armed conflict that resulted in East Pakistan breaking away to become an independent Bangladesh is a story of blood and tears. Official and unofficial estimates of deaths range widely between 300,000 and three million. In addition to mass killings, a large number of Bangladeshi women were subjected to sexual violence; the official figure is some 200,000. While Pakistan has not been immune from the trauma of war, its government has repeatedly denied the allegations of genocide in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. Some recent sceptics have also questioned the numbers both of people killed and of women raped.
How do we know that targeting women in this manner was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Pakistan Army? An article in the Dawn published on 22 March 2002 quotes Yahya Khan on the matter. As president, Yahya had directly ordered the army crackdown on East Pakistan in 1971. While talking to a small group of journalists in Jessore, in southwest Bangladesh, he was pointed towards a Bengali crowd that had assembled on the fringes of the airport. According to the article’s account, he said, in Urdu, “Pehle inko Mussalman karo” (First, make them Muslim). This anecdote is significant, for it demonstrates that at the senior-most level of the Pakistan Army there was a perception that Bengalis were not loyal Muslims. These perceptions also fed into two other stereotypes: that Bengalis were not patriotic Pakistanis, and they were too close to Hindu India.
This complex relationship among the three countries can be traced through the bitter Partition memories of abduction, the rape of thousands of women and children, and the ‘train incidents’ in which passengers of one community or the other were murdered en masse. The tragedy of the mass exodus in 1947 has shaped India’s and Pakistan’s stances towards each other, and East Pakistan became a significant pawn in this rivalry. From the beginning, Pakistan held India responsible for the Bangla national movement; in the process, it overlooked the growing discontent of the people of East Pakistan due to economic and political inequality with West Pakistan, and underestimated the people’s power. The leadership in Islamabad had always considered Bengalis to be not only weak and powerless, but Hinduani – too close to Hindu religious and cultural practices. As such, for Pakistan, Bengalis/East Pakistanis needed to be purged off this Hindu-ness.
Salma Sobhan, an activist and scholar, documented that from the initial stages of the conflict, the Pakistan Army boasted about its opportunity to “convert East Pakistan through engendering true Muslims” – meaning forced impregnation. Yahya’s order to make Muslims out of Bengalis was carried out most cruelly and literally during the nine months of conflict, when an estimated 200,000 women and children were systematically subjected to rape. Pakistani soldiers and their collaborators raped women in their homes, in their local areas, or even forcibly took them to ‘rape camps’. In this process, there were various lists created of names and numbers, which many social workers talked about with this writer. Many of those lists were deliberately burned by the post-war government in 1972, and the remaining lists were all destroyed during 1978-80 and again in 1985-86 by subsequent governments.
Besides forced impregnation, there were other rationales for widespread rape, as well. The army used rape to terrorise the populace, to extract information about the insurgency, to boost the morale of soldiers, and to crush the burgeoning Bangladeshi national identity. In addition, the Pakistan Army’s local militia, known as the Razakaar and al-Badr, used rape to terrorise, in particular the Hindu population, and to gain access to its land and property. It should also be noted that sexual violence was particularly used against women in the Urdu-speaking Bihari community. A large number of Biharis believed in a unified Pakistan, and actively supported its military crackdown. After the war, many Bihari women and young girls were raped to avenge rapes of Bengali women.
Due to the nature of their conception, war babies in Bangladesh experience significant stigma and prejudice, and it is unsurprising that they are rarely, if ever, represented in the Victory Day celebrations of Bangladesh. After the war, Pakistan denied charges of genocide and mass rape. But Islamabad’s refusal to take responsibility was matched by Dhaka’s failure to hold the perpetrators responsible for these war crimes.
Official documents suggest that there were at least 25,000 cases of forced pregnancy in the aftermath of the war. Bangladeshi leaders entrusted social workers and medical practitioners with the primary responsibility of dealing with the raped women; as a result, International Planned Parenthood, the Red Cross and the Catholic Church became involved in rehabilitation programmes. These organisations also became responsible for carrying out the daunting task of dealing with the pregnancies. Two activities thus began to take place simultaneously: the programme that allowed pregnant women to have abortions, and the programme for the adoption of war babies.
From this writer’s interviews with some prominent social workers and medical practitioners directly involved with the war babies, it is clear that while many of these workers were genuinely committed to supporting the victims, there were occasions when decisions of terminating pregnancy or giving up the baby for adoption went contrary to the women’s own choices. In addition, there were instances in which pleadings by young pregnant girls one way or the other were ignored, with the women being considered too young to make mature decisions.
Confusion over how to deal with the war babies appears to have gone to the very highest levels. Then-Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman repeatedly referred to these birangona (valiant) women as his “daughters”, and asked the nation to welcome them back into their communities and families. However, he also declared, with incredible insensitivity, that “none of the babies who carry the blood of the Pakistanis will be allowed to remain in Bangladesh.” Nilima Ibrahim, a prominent social worker and feminist author, recalls her meeting with Sheikh Mujibur, in her book Ami Birangona Bolchi. When questioned about the status of the war babies, the prime minister said, “Please send away the children who do not have their father’s identity. They should be raised as human beings with honour. Besides, I do not want to keep those polluted blood in this country.”
Perhaps such statements aided the push for adoption. In addition, however, through state-sponsored programmes, International Planned Parenthood and the International Abortion Research and Training Centre, local clinics helped women to carry out abortions. Clinics were set up with the support of the Bangladesh Central Organisation for Women’s Rehabilitation in Dhaka and 17 outlying areas, in order to cope with unwanted pregnancies. Geoffrey Davis, a medical graduate from Australia who worked in Bangladesh for a half-year in 1972 with International Planned Parenthood and other organisations, was one of the key individuals involved in administering the government-sponsored abortion programme. In an interview with this writer in 2002, he recalled some of the appalling stories he had heard, including of women who reported being raped multiple times by Pakistani soldiers.
According to Davis, women considered pretty were kept for the officers, while the rest were distributed among the ranks. The women did not get enough to eat, and when they fell ill, many died in the camps. A large number of survivors would never be able to bear children due to psychological and physical abuse. Davis reported that prior to the official abortion programme, most of the survivors had already undertaken abortions with the assistance of local dais (midwives) or untrained local doctors. By the time he arrived in Bangladesh, shortly after the Liberation War, nearly 5000 women had already managed to abort their babies through medically unsafe methods. He also accused the new government of providing inaccurate information concerning the number of women subjected to sexual violence during the nine months of Pakistan Army occupation.
An appeal was issued by Mother Teresa urging women not to have abortions, and instead to contact the Missionaries of Charity, which offered to take care of the war babies. In December 1971, Mother Teresa and M, a social worker who does not want to be named, visited some of the camps for rape victims in Bangladesh. In an interview, M recalled that Mother Teresa did not find girls at the camps, but only their hair, petticoats and a few other items. Their hair had been cut off because the Pakistan Army soldiers feared that the girls would attempt to commit suicide by tying their hair to ceiling fans, as some had already done. M went back to Bangladesh at the request of Mother Teresa on 21 January 1972, where she arranged for the adoption of war babies, most of whom were adopted by families in Canada, with some were also sent to France and Sweden.
In 1972, the Bangladesh government established the Women’s Rehabilitation Organisation to institutionalise women’s-rehabilitation projects, with the National Central Women’s Rehabilitation Board coordinating the government’s post-war policies. Under the Bangladesh Abandoned Children (Special Provision) Order of that year, the government encouraged foreign adoption agencies to take war babies from Bangladesh. The US branch of the Geneva-based International Social Service was the first international adoption agency to work in post-war Bangladesh. Through the Missionaries of Charity, other institutions also became involved in the programme, including Families for Children and the Kuan-Yin Foundation (both in Canada), the Holt Adoption Program (US) and Terre des Hommes (Switzerland).
In an interview, Nilima Ibrahim said that Muslim clerics initially protested about the adoption policies because the babies were being sent to Christian countries. But this resistance was not the only obstacle to overcome. “Many girls cried and did not want to give their babies away … We even had to use sedatives to make the women sleep and then take the babies.” Ibrahim’s recollections highlight the fact that women had limited, if any, choice about the future of their babies. The social workers obviously wanted to help these women, but eventually the trauma experienced by the women was mostly ignored. This seems to have come about due to the ‘purity’ of the state being given higher priority than the social workers’ perspective that the women should be protected.
B, another prominent social worker who was also reluctant to be named, confirmed that in the aftermath of the war, the Bangladesh government responded in two ways, neither of which were sensitive to the women’s needs. First was through abortion programmes, and the second was the enactment of adoption laws, though only for the immediate post-conflict period. Adoption of Bangladeshi children is not permitted under the country’s law; and while Bangladeshi citizens can be foster parents, this is a difficult process. While talking about the rejection of some of these women by their families, B recalled the case of one young girl who had given birth. Prior to delivery, she said she wanted to give her baby for adoption,” B said. “But when the time came, she refused to do so, and cried so much.”
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 upset 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.