Sun, Sep 30, 2007 - Page 17 News List

Where's our child?

In China, 190 children are stolen every day to full the demand for sons. Brokenhearted parents trying to find their loved ones face retaliation from traffickers and government intransigence

By Clare Dwyer Hogg  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Another trafficker, who specializes in children and is happy to appear on camera, says, "I think there must be something wrong with treating children as goods, but I can't figure out what it is." He likes to think of himself as an agent for parents who need to sell their children and a conduit for those who want to buy one. People do sell their children (if they don't have a birth permit, or are too poor to raise the child), but it is a murky world where a child becomes a missing piece in the commercial chain.

This trafficker admits that he used to sell women against their will, luring them first into a false sense of security by pretending to be a loving boyfriend. And although children are now much more lucrative, it is hard to understand why he wouldn't empathize with the families left behind: he has witnessed first-hand the devastation his older son feels since his younger brother went missing. The son, no more than 13, mourns the loss of a brother. "I miss him," he says. "This year he would be nine ... ." The twist is that he later discovered that his own father was to blame for the disappearance. "My grandmother told me my dad sold my brother," he says. "I thought my dad was very bad to do that. I felt very sad. At the time ... at the time ... I really hated him."

Hope against hope

As soon as the Chens discovered that Chen Jie was missing, they called 110, the emergency services. The police called back instantly for details and a description, but didn't come to their home. After a day of frantic searching, aided by neighbors with a car, the Chens went to the police station. A mix-up had occurred: because the emergency call happened late at night, the local police hadn't been passed the details. Looking around the train station and hotspots of trafficking didn't turn up any clues; they interviewed the neighbor, Zhang - nothing.

They are encouraged, however, by a sliver of hope: Lung has heard breaking news that a ring of traffickers has been uncovered. The police have rescued around 40 babies, and families will be reunited with their kidnapped children - this is hope, in his eyes. "We're both victims of the situation," Lung says of himself and his wife, yet they are unwilling to criticize the government's policies: the police are working on their case, Lung says. Li comes on the line to explain that it's hard for the police, too: "Police would go and try to investigate, but even they get beaten up at remote townships ... ." Her equanimity crumbles later in the call, though, as she breaks down, admitting that she's not sure if she can keep living like this. But she forces herself to keep going. "I always remember what a father said who got his stolen boy back," she says. "He said as long as you keep your hope there is a chance; but if you give up hope and stop looking, the child is gone forever."

Li's grandmother, carrying her own burden of guilt, often dreams of her missing grandson, too. It is no surprise that her daytime longings spill into her night. "I had a dream that my grandson came back," she says. "I held him in my arms and he asked me, 'Grandma, are you tired?' I replied that I was not tired at all when holding my grandson. I was so happy that he finally came back." And then, with sorrow, she returned to the terrible reality. "Then," she says, "I woke up."

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