The only memento that Salia has of his daughter Zabeen is a small photocopy of her face.
For the last week I’ve been working on a story about kidnapped children who have ended up being sent abroad by international adoption agencies. This story came out in this week’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald and Asian Age. This is only the beginning of my research into this issue, there is a lot more to come.
‘Maybe now, we will get justice’
NOVEMBER 11, 1998, was like any other day in Chennai: hot and humid. Fatima, a young housewife with three children left her house for a grocery run across the street while two of her children, Zabeen, 2, and Sadaam Hussein, 4, played in an alley.
A three-wheeled auto rickshaw pulled up at the alley entrance and the children peeped inside. A woman reached down and grabbed Zabeen and Sadaam and dragged them into the rickshaw. The driver, a man, sped away but Sadaam managed to break free. He ran home to an empty house and cowered under a small wooden bed.
“I can still remember their faces,” says Sadaam, now 15.
While his parents searched the neighborhood, the kidnappers were meeting with the owners of Malaysian Social Services.
Police records indicate the MSS orphanage admitted Zabeen under the name Suji and claimed that her mother had abandoned her and another child.
“The documents were obviously forged,” says D. Geetha, a human rights lawyer who is representing Zabeen’s family. “The woman who signed it wasn’t a relative, it was her kidnapper.”
According to court documents the kidnappers sold children to MSS for 10,000 rupees ($280) each. Since 1991, MSS has sent almost 300 children to Australia, the Netherlands and the United States.
The orphanage demanded large donations to manage the international adoptions and collected almost $250,000. Zabeen was sent to Queensland under her new name.
“They took my child because she was beautiful,” Fatima says.
Indian orphanages are often overcrowded, but many of those children may not be as attractive to foreigners as healthy children raised by their parents.
The next five years were the stuff of nightmares. Fatima and her husband, Salia, immediately filed a report with the local police, but were not encouraged by their response.
“They barely looked at the report, it wasn’t a priority for them. There were no detectives, nothing,” Salia says.
Instead, Salia and Fatima stopped working and spent their days scouring the city for news of their daughter.
“We had to sell the jewels from my dowry and most of our property just to keep going,” Fatima says.
Then, in 2005, as news reports of adoption scandals rolled across India, a police officer asked Salia to pick out Zabeen from some photos. He identified her immediately.
The police officer told him that his daughter was safe in Australia, but that it would be difficult to bring her back. The news gave Fatima some relief.
“Every day I searched the streets for some sign of her. I had gone mad. But once the police told me that she was OK, I began to feel better. I could sleep again,” she says.
Now after almost 10 years, what they want most is news of their child. “If I could only see her and know that she is in a good place, getting a good education that is enough for me. She can stay in Australia, but we should still give her a choice to come back to her family,” Fatima says.
Until then, all they have of Zabeen is a small, photocopied picture of her aged two.
“Maybe now that the world is watching, we will get justice,” Salia says.
[Link to article in the Sydney Morning Herald]
[More photos of Zabeen’s family here]