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Dhaka, Bangladesh – It should have been one of the most joyous moments in the lives of Torikul Islam and his wife Rubina – the birth of their daughter. Instead it turned into a nightmare after the baby was abducted from the hospital.
Stealing and selling newborns from public hospitals is on the rise in Bangladesh with at least 16 such incidents over the past year, according to police and non-government organisation statistics.
With only five babies recovered over the past year, the trend has spread fear among would-be parents, especially rural dwellers and lower income groups who use the services of public hospitals for free or nominal fees.
Torikul – a farmer living in Rajshahi division, 240km east of the capital Dhaka – admitted his pregnant wife Rubina Begum at the Rajshahi Medical College Hospital on December 28, 2014. She gave birth to a baby girl that night.
“As she is the first baby in our family, most of my relatives came to the hospital to see her the next day. There was this woman in a veil in the neonatal ward who sat near us,” Torikul told Al Jazeera.
The week we passed without Ekhlas was filled with nightmares. We never expected to find him again.
He said he went out to bid farewell to relatives leaving only his elderly mother-in-law with the baby.
“We learned later that the veiled woman had advised my mother-in-law to wipe the face of the baby, and when she had turned to look for a cloth, she fled with the baby,” said Torikul.
Although hospital authorities immediately locked down all exits, the baby thief still managed to escape.
Unlike other parents, the family’s horrifying story had a happy ending, as police recovered the baby on January 1.
“After investigating the outsiders who frequented the hospital, we managed to arrest four people including a hospital staffer,” said Anisur Rahman, the officer-in-charge at the Rajpara police station.
Kaosar Hossain’s baby boy was stolen from Dhaka Medical College Hospital in August 2014.
Two days earlier, Kaosar, who works at a neighbourhood clinic and earns a monthly salary of $84, had admitted his wife Runa Akhter.
“She required a caesarean operation as we were expecting twin baby boys,” said Kaosar.
“My wife was feeding Yasin, one of the twins, in a bed of the neonatal ward. As Ekhlas, the other one, cried, a woman who had been occupying one of the beds in the ward … walked over and tried to calm Ekhlas,” said Hossain.
When Runa turned around a minute later, she found that both the woman and Ekhlas had disappeared.
A week later a unit of the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite paramilitary force, recovered Ekhlas from Gazipur area, some 30km outside Dhaka and made two arrests.
“The week we passed without Ekhlas was filled with nightmares. We never expected to find him again,” Runa told Al Jazeera.
According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, a Dhaka-based NGO that monitors child rights, at least 16 babies were stolen – double the number from the previous year – and only five were later recovered.
In 2014, 16 babies were stolen and only five recovered [Sourav Lasker/Al Jazeera]
The group said the actual number is likely to be higher as “most newborn thefts in public hospitals at rural locations remain unreported”.
Officials said it appears the demand for babies is among childless couples and that is driving the infant trade.
Stolen babies are later sold for about $500.
One of the arrested culprits had been delivering babies for poor parents in clinics, and “often lied to the parents by telling them that their babies were stillborn. Later, she often sold the same healthy baby to childless couples”, said Commander Mufti Mahmud Khan of the Rapid Action Battalion.
In the case of Torikul’s baby, the kidnappers confessed to police that they were desperate for a child after their two-year-old died, said investigating officer Anisur Rahman.
The rise in baby abductions, meanwhile, is driving away patients from public hospitals. Fahad Ahmed, a Dhaka-based businessman, said he and his wife would go to a private hospital and pay more because of the situation.
In a bid to allay such fears, the public hospitals are bolstering security.
“We are increasing supervision in the different wards by installing more closed circuit cameras and also increasing accountability among ward in-charges, nurses and other staff,” Dhaka Medical College Hospital official Mushfiqur Rahman Al Jazeera.