An Angry Doctor Battles a Gruesome Black Market in Asian Children

Date: 1981-12-07
In nearly a decade of treating the destitute in the slums of Bangladesh and Calcutta, British physician Jack Preger has witnessed more than a lifetime of misery and squalor. His patients are the homeless who scavenge for shelter in any dark corner, the helpless ridden with disease and the hopeless who can turn nowhere else. The sweltering wards Dr. Preger has chosen to minister to are the teeming environs of Calcutta’s Strand Road, where victims of leprosy, malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid huddle together in areas littered with human and animal feces, dead rats and mounds of rotting garbage.

But not even the hellish conditions he found in Calcutta could have prepared Dr. Preger for the degradation and corruption that met him in Bangladesh. As a volunteer in Dacca from 1972 until 1979, he visited refugee detention centers and vagrant internment camps of such brutality that he could only compare them to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Even more devastating, in its way, was Preger’s discovery, in 1977, of what he claims is a kidnapping ring that supplies children not only for illegal adoption but also for prostitution, mutilation and murder. The British Anti-Slavery Society is preparing a report on Dr. Preger’s findings for the United Nations Economic and Social Council as well as for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Interpol and the Dutch Ministry of Justice have launched separate investigations into the matter at the request of a Swiss child welfare agency, and Renee Bridel, a Swiss U.N. delegate in Geneva, is writing a comprehensive report on the international traffic in children. “This involves hundreds of thousands of children from all over the Third World—and certainly from Bangladesh,” says Bridel. “They are sent to wealthy countries everywhere, including the U.S. and Canada.”

Before being deported from Bangladesh in 1979 for allegedly meddling in the country’s “internal affairs,” Dr. Preger says he discovered how the flesh peddlers gathered the children and what they did with them. Some victims were simply snatched off the streets; others were taken from their parents with the promise that they would be sent to boarding school. Many illiterate, poverty-stricken parents, in a country where the average daily wage is less than a dollar, were duped into giving up their offspring in the belief that they would be fed, housed and educated by a Dutch relief agency. Assured that they could visit their children at any time, the parents discovered when they attempted to do so that the schools did not exist and that their children had vanished without a trace. They were also informed, to their horror, that the blank papers to which they had trustingly affixed their thumbprints were forms by which they had relinquished their sons and daughters for adoption.

According to Bridel and U.N. reports, the kindest fate awaiting the tens of thousands of children spirited out of the country is illegal overseas adoption by parents who pay $1,000 or more. (By contrast, only 1,400 Bangladesh children were legally adopted outside the country between 1972 and 1978.) The rest of the kidnap victims face terrible futures. Officials in Dacca acknowledge that some children are sold to professional beggars’ syndicates and cynically mutilated to increase their earning potential. “I have examined a number of these beggars, who are put out each morning by the syndicate and collected, with their takings, in the evening,” says Dr. Preger. “Some have severe malformations of the limbs which are not the result of congenital problems, but have been acquired by binding up the limbs for a period. I also found in some cases that their ‘injuries’ were surprisingly similar. It’s as if somebody learned how to do a certain amputation and just went on doing it, like on an assembly line.”

Children who escape disfigurement are sold into brothels or introduced into other kinds of sexual commerce. “Begging doesn’t really bring in big money,” says U.N. investigator Bridel. “Pornography does. The biggest income comes from the very young children, down to the ages of 2 and 3 years old. They are filmed and photographed in acts of pedophilia and even with animals. You can buy these cassettes at kiosks all over the world and project them at home. And there are ‘snuff films now on the market in which teenage girls are actually put to death. From what I know, these films are made by gangsters in the U.S., Hong Kong and Manila, and screened in the U.S. and South America. It is very costly to see them and very clandestine.”

Grim as the stories of missing children were, Dr. Preger at first dismissed them as unsubstantiated rumors. His curiosity, however, was aroused by newspaper ads placed by parents whose children had disappeared from the streets of Dacca. When parents started coming to his clinic to ask for help in 1977, Dr. Preger began making inquiries. First he and his staff took affidavits from parents in a relief camp called Dattapara, from which 100 children had been removed. Preger traced the victims to a man named Moslem Ali Khan, director of both a Dutch relief agency, Terre des Hommes-Netherlands, and a Dutch adoption agency known as the Inter-Country Child Welfare Organization. Preger’s investigation also led him to Khan’s partners, New Zealander Alan Cheyne, head of Terre des Hommes-Denmark and the Underprivileged Children’s Educational Program, and Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley, head of the Bangladesh Directorate of Social Welfare. It processes all legal adoption papers in the nation of 94 million.

This powerful troika, according to Dr. Preger and others who worked in Bangladesh, was perfectly situated to acquire children and swiftly dispose of them. Allegedly using the legitimate programs they ran as a front, Khan and Cheyne were able to round up the victims, and Dr. Shelley, in charge of issuing visas, handled the paperwork to ship them out of the country. Eventually Preger obtained the names of 35 children who had fallen into their hands, and learned that Khan and Cheyne had bought them airline tickets to Holland. He presented his evidence to Dutch authorities, but they could account for only six of the 35 children. When Preger asked to examine KLM flight manifests, the airline refused, claiming it wasn’t convinced the children had been fraudulently obtained, although several were over the legal age for adoption in the Netherlands.

No sooner had Preger taken his findings to the Bangladesh government than he became a target of investigation himself. When deportation proceedings were initiated against him, he hired attorney Nazmul Huda, secretary-general of the Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, to represent him. He also persuaded Huda, who is retained as legal counsel by the U.S. Embassy in Dacca, to interview the parents in Dattapara himself.

Though Preger did not know it, Huda also had Alan Cheyne as a client. The lawyer took affidavits at Dattapara, but caved in quickly to political pressure. “I was advised by the Home Minister not to fight the case,” Huda told PEOPLE. “This was coming from the horse’s mouth. Jack Preger had certain permits to carry out his work in Bangladesh without meddling in any affairs. But he got involved in so many problems like this that people found him an interference with the government. In my opinion, Jack Preger was a very sincere person who was trying to unfold certain wrongs that had been committed by certain powerful government officials in collaboration with some private agencies like Terre des Hommes and Moslem Ali Khan. He was really out to see that justice was done. The problem was that he was a foreigner and could be deported. If he had not been a foreigner, I think he could have won this thing.”

Police arrested Dr. Preger at his clinic in February 1979, drove him to the airport and forced him aboard a plane to Singapore. His wife and three children were deported a month later, and all of Preger’s belongings and programs were taken over by Dr. Shelley on behalf of the government. Two of his projects, an internationally financed Boys’ Town and an eight-acre farm for the destitute, were turned over to Cheyne, while Preger’s two clinics continued to operate until their supplies were exhausted or sold on the black market. To mollify outraged citizens who had read of the child stealing and the Dutch authorities whom Preger had contacted, the Bangladesh government formed what it described as “a high-powered inquiry team” to question the parents at Dattapara. But the four-member panel consisted of Dr. Shelley and three of his colleagues from the Directorate of Social Welfare—some of the very men accused of the crimes. Amazingly, Moslem Ali Khan and a staff member were allowed to interrogate witnesses during the inquiry. Elizabeth Seytel, a French nurse who had worked for Terre des Hommes and later for Dr. Preger, claims that prior to the inquiry the parents were threatened and warned to recant their previous testimony. Two of the mothers who charged Khan with taking their children told PEOPLE that some parents were beaten and others were given saris and money to remain silent. Not surprisingly, the four-page government report on the case absolved everyone of any wrongdoing and concluded that Preger’s allegations were baseless. “They just tried to cover up everything,” insists Seytel. “They questioned the mothers, but the mothers are very poor. If they have shelter and other children, they want to keep what they have. Khan could have them thrown out of the camp because he runs it.”

For their part, Khan, Cheyne and Shelley deny all charges. They argue, somewhat disingenuously, that Bangladesh has strict laws requiring that a child put up for adoption must first be certified by a magistrate as abandoned. But Nurse Seytel points out that only legal adoptions are bound up in red tape. “It is very easy to do illegal adoptions here because nobody can really check if the children have parents,” she says. “You can take any woman into a magistrate’s office and give her 100 taka [$5.55] to say that she is the mother of a child, and the child will be signed away. Or you can take a child and say you found him abandoned somewhere. In that case you are required to put an ad in the paper asking someone to claim him. But nobody knows how to read or write, and nobody buys the paper. So the child is never claimed.”

In government documents obtained by PEOPLE, and prepared before Dr. Preger’s expulsion, Dr. Shelley denied that any illegal traffic in children existed in Bangladesh. He also denounced Dr. Preger as “a psychopathic complainer,” drawn to the Third World “on account of his failure to make a living in the competitive world of economically and technologically advanced countries.” Shelley predicted, correctly, that Preger would resist deportation.

“Yes, I resisted,” says Preger. “Not because I had some lucrative job or some political or religious involvement, but because I wanted to help the very people the government is determined not to help. And I interfered in the so-called internal affairs of Bangladesh because these are human rights issues not to be confined within state or government boundaries and not to be hushed up under any circumstances.”

Since arriving in Calcutta in 1979, Preger has crusaded from afar for the children of Bangladesh, while continuing his war against death and disease. Funded by the Catholic Maryknoll Brothers until the Indian government threatened to deport him as an illegal missionary, Preger now uses his own money—borrowed from the Bank of England—and medicine donated by Mother Teresa’s group. He sets out each morning from his $2-a-day YWCA room to make the rounds of the How-rah and Sealdah railway stations where so many of the homeless take refuge. “They have given up the struggle for life itself,” he says grimly. “They lie there, and very frequently, but usually very slowly, they die there—in a pool of feces and urine and perhaps blood, covered with flies and very little else.”

The son of Jewish refugees, Preger was born in 1930 in Manchester, England. He was educated at Oxford, where he majored in philosophy, politics and economics. Graduating in 1953, he bought a farm in Wales, and four years later married his first wife, Maritta, an artist. She is the mother of his son, Alan, 21, who lives in London. In 1964, struck by an inspiration he struggles even now to explain, Preger entered medical school at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin at the age of 35. During his six years of study and residency, his marriage dissolved, and when the appeal went out for doctors in Bangladesh, he immediately heeded the call. While there he married his present wife, Cathy, a British nurse’s aide, and adopted her three children. This past April Cathy bore him a daughter, Anna, he has seen only once. Since their deportation his family has lived in a low-rent “charity house” in England, and Cathy supports them with a part-time job in a hospital.

“Cathy expected to be coming to Calcutta in 1979, but then she decided against it,” Preger says. “She accepts that it’s too risky and that the children’s education can’t be interrupted anymore. But she thinks what I’m doing is hopeless. It was right to do what I did in Bangladesh, but obviously the repercussions were awful and we lost everything. Having done all that, she wants me to forget it. When I saw her last, she accepted that my work is worth doing…but it was a grudging acceptance.”

Though Dr. Preger is sympathetic to his wife’s reservations, he believes his practice has become inescapable, something akin to duty and fate. “You see, I don’t look for trouble or controversy,” he says. “I just decided I’d work for the poor because it seemed the logical thing to do with my life. In Bangladesh, I told the parents I would do everything I could to find their children. I can’t say now that it has simply become inconvenient to help them. Thousands of people die, and lots of families continue to lose their children, and these rackets go on and on. It has to break somewhere.”