November 11th, 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-wheel 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 back of the rickshaw. The driver, a man, sped away, but Sadaam managed to break free, running home to an empty house and cowering under a small wooden bed. He was so shaken he was unable to tell his mother immediately that his sister had been stolen.
“I can still remember their faces,” says Sadaam, now 14, of the kidnappers. He dreams of one day reuniting with his sister.
While his parents searched the neighbourhood, the kidnappers were meeting with the owners of Malaysian Social Services (MSS), an orphanage and adoption agency.
Police records indicate that the 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 lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network 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 the children for 10,000 rupees ($280) each. Since 1991, the agency has sent almost 300 children abroad to Australia, the Netherlands and the United States.
The orphanage charged high fees disguised as donations to manage the international adoptions and collected almost $250,000 for the children. Zabeen was sent to Queensland under her new name.
“They took my child because she was beautiful,” says Fatima.
Conventional Indian orphanages are often overcrowded, and one view is that genuine orphans may not be as attractive to foreigners as healthy children raised in their parents’ homes.
For Fatima, the next five years were the stuff of nightmares. She and her husband, Salia, filed a report with the local police, but were discouraged by the response.
“They barely looked at the report, it wasn’t a priority for them. There were no detectives, nothing,” says Salia.
Instead, the couple bankrupted themselves financing their own investigation. They stopped working and spent their days scouring the city asking everyone they met for news of their daughter.
Then, in 2005, as news reports of adoption scandals rolled across India, a police officer asked Salia to pick out Zabeen from a list of photos of young children. He identified his daughter immediately.
The police officer told him that his daughter was safe in Australia, but that it would be difficult to bring her back. “Every day I searched the streets for some sign of her. I had gone mad. But once the police told me that she was okay, I began to feel better. I could sleep again,” says Fatima.
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,” says Fatima.