Wouter Dijkstra always knew he had two mothers: his Dutch adoptive mother and his Sri Lankan birth mother. In September 2020, he found out he had three.
Almost a year to the day his Sri Lankan mother died, Wouter got a call from a woman named Amanda Janssen, an acquaintance and fellow adoptee. “We have a match,” she told him. The results of a new DNA test had just popped into her inbox.
Wouter was born Nishan Iranga on 14 July 1974, to an unmarried Christian woman in a hospital outside Colombo. Pregnant single women in Sri Lanka had few options in the 1970s. A convent gave the woman refuge, and helped place Nishan for adoption. “Isn’t he a darling?” a nun wrote in black-inked cursive to his adoptive mother in the Netherlands. On the top of the note, she affixed a black and white photo of a wide-eyed infant.
A doctor-engineer couple adopted Nishan when he was six months old and took him back to Eerbeek, a small town in the Netherlands. Renamed Wouter, he had a comfortable childhood; fancy toys, a good education and holidays abroad. But he always stood out: a short brown boy in a very white country. He often wondered what his life would have been like had he stayed in Sri Lanka. In his teens, the questions gnawed at him further: who was he, and where had he come from?
In 1990, when he was 16, Wouter wrote to the convent requesting information about his birth mother. His was among the first dozen recorded adoptions from Sri Lanka to the Netherlands, making him among the first wave of Sri Lankan adoptees undertaking a “root search.” He had only a couple of pieces of paper—the nun’s letter, and a greying birth certificate in English. The authorities refused to share more information with him. Wouter let it rest.
Nine years later, now married and employed, Wouter decided to resume his aborted quest. A Dutch volunteer agency involved in root searches introduced him to a Sri Lankan social worker with contacts at the convent. A month later, she gave him an address. It set in motion the beginning of the rest of his life.
Amanda wasn’t alone in finding the trail go cold. Contradictory information, falsified paperwork or unhelpful officials were thwarting Sri Lankan-origin adoptees across Europe.
But there was now one solution possible for cutting through a system rigged against them: DNA. Amanda started a project called Sri Lanka-DNA in 2018 to provide DNA tests to Sri Lankan women and adult adoptees on either side of the divide. Consumer DNA testing had taken off in the 2010s. It was being used to identify health risks and trace genealogical histories. It was also being deployed by adoptees in the West to search for their birth families.
This January, Amanda packed a bag with scores of tests and flew to Colombo. Along with two colleagues, she travelled through the island nation of 22 million, meeting over a dozen Sri Lankan women who had placed children for adoption. These mothers, many in their sixties and seventies, were desperate to know what had become of their children. The DNA tests provided a sliver of hope. As Amanda scanned the hopeful, weathered faces of the women, she wondered: would she find her own mother?
International adoption was once considered a social good—a way to provide a more comfortable life in the West to children from impoverished backgrounds. But decades on, it has created an ethically tumultuous, emotionally messy afterlife. This is the story of Amanda and Wouter, of searching and finding, of searching and failing. Of false starts, joyous reunions, incremental breakthroughs and heartbreaking disclosures.
“You come, shop, and go”
Between 1974 and 2019, at least 11,000 babies were adopted from Sri Lanka by white European couples, chiefly from Sweden, the Netherlands and France. By 1979, the island was ninth amongst the top ten origin countries for babies adopted to four western nations. By the end of the 1980s, Sri Lanka was fifth on a similar list across 14 western nations.  Through this period, as ethnic violence escalated, Sri Lanka’s economic conditions worsened. Social spending and wages fell, and malnutrition and illiteracy rose. 
“Maybe when they started adoption, it was from a good place,” said Dilani Butink, a Dutch adoptee from Sri Lanka. “But good intentions don’t justify the broken system that followed.” Prompted by church officials or brokered through middlemen, poor, illiterate women sent away their babies to what they thought would be better lives. Their families were large, abortion was illegal; some were raped, others single, abandoned or widowed. Some were paid a few thousand rupees, in what could be considered a transaction. Others were promised news and photographs of their children.
“Restrictions were few and authorities could be paid, easing the conditions for adoptions,” said Dr. Harendra de Silva, an emeritus professor of paediatrics and founder chairman of Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority, which was only established in 1999. He remembered reports about powerful politicians being associated with “baby farms” and illegal practices. Corruption prevailed. “It was like a supermarket,” Harendra said, “You come, shop, and go.”
A shady network of hospital employees, court clerks, lawyers and social workers lubricated the baby pipeline to the West. In many cases papers were swapped, birth records were fudged and misleading information given to both birth and adoptive parents.  Another aspect of this unregulated system were “acting mothers”: women hired to formalise an adoption in court without the birth mother present.
These duplicities have come to light in the last few years, complicating searches and feelings of selfhood. “A lot of adoptees feel very abandoned and they are dealing with a lot of grief and mental illness,” said Mirjam Bina de Boer, an Indian adoptee in the Netherlands, who runs a counselling service. “Some people feel disconnected with themselves and their families. We see a lot of suicides in the adoptee community.” 
Not all adoptees  want to find their birth families, and not all birth mothers want to be found. For many South Asian women, there are privacy concerns, or social stigmas around pregnancies out of wedlock. Searching can be tedious, expensive and draining. Even for the lucky ones that achieve a happy first meeting, other kinds of demons lurk on the other side of knowing.
“I’d kill him”
Through his decades of volunteer searching, Silva had put together a bulging brown notebook of names—mothers who had contacted him seeking his help. Now the three had arrived in Udugampola, a 30-minute drive from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport, to meet P. Somawathie, a woman desperate to find a daughter she had placed for adoption in 1985.
The trio had the routine down pat: first interview the women and draw out their potted histories, then take a DNA sample to match it against a growing database of adoptees. Dilani would also take photographs for a book they were working on.
Tall and slim, her curls wrapped up in a fierce bun, Amanda whipped out her iPad after settling into a plastic chair. She addressed her questions to Somawathie, while Andrew helped translate. First, she drew out the facts. “Did you have any education?” “The child’s birthday?” “Her name?” “When was she adopted?”
A man had come to their house and explained the concept of adoption, Somawathie said. With her marriage crumbling, meagre resources, and five children to raise, she had decided to place her three-year-old for adoption.
Her oldest son P.A.W. Indika dredged up a single polaroid memory: his sister leaving in a red car. Mother and child were briefly taken to a house in Colombo. Indika dropped the word “baby farm” a few times, though it wasn’t clear if he meant a shelter for children or something more sinister.
At a hotel in Colombo, Somawathie handed her daughter over to a couple from the Netherlands. They took photographs and Somawathie signed some documents. The agent noted down her details and promised updates about the baby, even visits. But silence followed. “They just went and pretended like nothing happened,” she said. “Actually, I was really helpless, which is why I got caught in it.” An intermediary paid her some money, though she couldn’t recall how much. When she returned home, she struggled to explain to Indika why his sister had not come back with her.
Amanda then moved to the more emotionally fraught questions. Do you regret placing her for adoption? Did you start searching too late? Somawathie was livid with the agent. “I’d kill him,” she said. Had she known she would never see her daughter again, she wouldn’t have done it.
At the end of the interview, Amanda tore open a DNA kit. Somawathie rested her head back and Amanda swiped the inside of her left cheek. She dropped the sample in the vial, and sealed it inside an air-tight packet. Indika knew the power of DNA. “During the tsunami, a child was found and three mothers came to claim the child,” he recalled. “Then, the court told them to do the DNA test.”
Somawathie was counting on this magic stick to crack open a cold case, and find her daughter. “I’m asking god that it be successful,” she said.
“The worst is not knowing”
She had lost her oldest son, a soldier, in the civil war, she told him. They had never found his body. Now suddenly, Wouter had arrived at her doorstep like “a gift from god.” He spotted a man he thought resembled him. Was that his father, he asked? It was.
“Are you still married to my father?” he recalled asking his birth mother. “So why did you give me away for adoption?” She said poverty had forced their hand.
Wouter visited them over the years and kept in touch on the phone. He helped his birth family build a house, and sent money periodically. It felt richly satisfying. But he still had so many unanswered questions.
Dilani was not as lucky as Wouter. Her search had imploded in 2015, when the Colombo hospital mentioned on her birth certificate said it held no record of her. In 2018, she started legal proceedings against the Dutch government and the adoption agency for “carelessly” allowing her falsified paperwork. Her petition demanded that they accept responsibility for ignoring adoption illegalities.
With the matter still in court, Dilani spent those two January weeks in Sri Lanka with Amanda. They drove 1,000 kilometres through coconut groves, wildlife sanctuaries, coastal towns and sylvan villages. They interviewed desperate families and took DNA samples. Was this how they would meet their mothers, they wondered. Amanda described the nerve-shredding trip as riding “a tuk-tuk without safety regulations.”
At one meeting in coastal Marawila, for a fleeting second Grecilda Fernando saw Dilani and wondered if it was her own daughter returning. Near hilly Balangoda, Sherani Princy, who had come to help interpret for her neighbour, abruptly asked if Amanda could help her, too: Sherani’s two sisters had also been placed for adoption.
A tapestry of tragedy emerged through the interviews. Most women spoke of family pressures, rape and poverty. But they also spoke of the hope of a better life abroad for their children. Some saw those bright futures realised in Amanda and Dilani; women who were well-educated, well-fed, well-travelled.
But jagged edges and invisible wounds lurked beneath. Dilani referred to the misguided “white saviour complex” motivating many adoptions. “Who gets to decide what is better or worse?” she asked. Amanda agreed. “For me, the worst is not knowing,” she said. “Life is not like a Mario game where I can redo it all. It’s overrated when they say it’s way better over there.” Occasionally, the group wondered if the women were revealing the whole truth about their actions.
Despite the gravity of their mission, Amanda’s conversation veered between dark humour and politically incorrect banter. As Andrew Silva’s Nissan van threaded through western Sri Lanka, she shared her opinions on bad women drivers (“maybe it is my mother!”), her Dutch father (“racist as hell”) and her distaste for wildlife (“maybe I’m not Sri Lankan after all.”)
But she was also rattled while speaking to the mothers—not merely as an adoptee glimpsing her own possible backstory, but as a mother of a five-year-old. “I’ve never met a mother who had a baby literally stolen,” she said. “But for me it’s a crime if you convince a woman to give up a child, or lie to her and say we will keep contact and then break it.”
“I’m not selling them”
In the mid-1980s, a woman connected to a hospital near Ranjanee’s home first asked if she could help with placing an abandoned child for adoption. “The reason why I gave my name without fear is that this child didn’t have parents and if they’re going to get good lives, then it’s okay,” she said. “I’m not selling them.” She was hosted in Colombo by the purported adoption workers and told not to talk to the six or seven other women who had also come with babies.
In court, the magistrate asked why she was sending the child away. “I had difficulty looking after the child,” she lied.
Ranjanee was also told to cajole women into considering adoption. “What the intermediary said was that if there are children being neglected, left without parents, or struggling to be brought up, to let her know,” she said. In her village, she encouraged at least one mother to consider this route. She claimed she was never paid for this. “I helped because a child destined to die would be able to live somewhere.”
Years later, when two adult adoptees abroad asked Andrew Silva to conduct searches for them, he found that the Ranjanee Welipitiyage mentioned in their birth papers was not, in fact, their birth mother. She reflected on what she had done and cried. “If they are doing okay,” she said, “then I’m happy.”
“The government didn’t act”
Adoption would now take place through designated “central authorities” and accredited bodies. Prospective adopters would be carefully assessed. Birth parents were to be properly counselled and would have to give written consent.
Previously, there had been little oversight, with foreign agencies working with local social workers to send babies abroad. Peter Selman, who has written extensively about inter-country adoption, said that concern over the growing irregularities in Sri Lanka and elsewhere “were a major factor in the decision to develop” the Convention.
Then came the tsunami in 2004, where more than 5,000 children lost one or both parents. Subsequently, the Sri Lankan government introduced safeguards to prevent child trafficking and illegal adoption. Extended families would not automatically get custody and adoptions could be formalised only a year after a child was placed in foster care. (Sri Lanka recorded just 108 inter-country adoptions between 1998 and 2019.)
In 2017, Zembla, a documentary broadcast on Dutch TV, made several shocking revelations: a Dutch adoption agency called Flash had knowingly defrauded parents and made profits. On hidden camera, a “searcher” described the prevalence of “baby farms”, which he compared to breeding centres. The documentary sparked widespread outrage, and the Sri Lankan government promised to investigate.
Western governments have also responded. Last year, the Netherlands suspended all inter-country adoption following the damning report of a government-appointed committee. “In Sri Lanka, the Dutch government itself was not involved in abuses, but was regularly aware of it,” the committee found. “The government did not act, although there was reason to do so.”  Authorities in Sweden, which has the highest number of children adopted per capita, called for a similar inquiry. Switzerland has already moved one step ahead: this May, it promised to fund adoptees in their searches as it had failed to prevent illegalities.
“Okay, what is real?”
Then he saw her death certificate.
The Sinhala Buddhist name did not match the Christian name on his birth certificate. Struck by the peculiarity, he quizzed his siblings, and asked his family for a DNA sample. But they dodged the request. His brother Susanta brushed it off saying their mother had changed her name after marriage.
But Wouter’s suspicions deepened. “I was thinking, okay what’s real? Is my name real? My amma I just buried, is she real?” For months, he felt listless, his appetite gone, his sleep fitful. “I thought okay, my life is over. Why should I live now? And then I thought: I have a son, I have a daughter, I must live for them.”
Six months later, he broke down when he heard his Sri Lankan father had died. Who was he mourning? It didn’t even make sense to him. Meanwhile his friend Namal had embarked on a new shoe-leather search. He started at the hospital where Wouter was born and found a different address linked to the Christian woman named on the birth certificate.
He chased down leads across villages on the west coast, knocking on doors, and discreetly asking around. He eventually found her in a town called Puttalam and took her aside to chat. “I saw her and I thought, there is no need for DNA,” he chuckled. “It was the same face of Nishan.” She wept when Namal explained why he had come. He plucked a DNA kit from his car and asked her to spit into the vial.
“She wanted to hold me”
The news rent him apart. “When I was 25 years old, I knew how hard it was to search for my mother, to find my mother and to deal with it,” he said. “And I didn’t want to lose myself again. I thought, okay, must I go through this again? And how will I survive this?”
The tectonic plates of his existence shifted again. The family he had bonded with, the woman he had cremated, the people he had visited were not, and had never been, his birth family. “Now I know 100 percent that I was lied to,” he said. “I lost 21 years of my life, of my new family life.”
With the pandemic having stalled travel, Wouter met his new family over a video call. In December 2021, two years after Namal first found her, Wouter, who now preferred to go by the name Nishan, went to meet the woman, whom I will call Aileen because she requested that her name be withheld.
Overall, it was a happy trip flecked with discomfort and confusion. Nishan’s siblings were pleased to meet him but Aileen sat in a corner silently, washed over by joy, grief and anxiety. At first, she barely spoke, and Nishan was wary. “After two weeks, she wanted to hold me but I could not do that,” he said. “I said we need time to have the connection. I said, maybe I was hurt too much by my fake mother.”
And what about his birth father, Nishan wanted to know. Aileen told him she had had an affair. As an unmarried woman, she had been forced to place him for adoption. Something stirred inside Nishan after this meeting. He felt an immediate warmth towards his siblings. He started learning Sinhala online to connect more meaningfully with his new relatives. He began to talk about leaving the Netherlands and moving to Sri Lanka for good.
“The nose, maybe?”
One sunny morning, as their white van passed through a town called Avissawella, Amanda, Dilani and Andrew decided to make an unscheduled stop at the local hospital. Amanda wanted to check if any babies had been born on her or Dilani’s given birthdays. (Or as Dilani called 27 January, her “maybe birthday,” as in, maybe it was her birthday, but with all the fraud, who knew?)
The women bounced between buildings, their hearts beating faster. “I feel the grey hairs coming,” Amanda joked nervously. “Is it to be or not to be?” In the record room, a helpful official dug out the book for 1992—Dilani’s birth year—and swished the crackling pages of an ancient ledger. October, September, March, January. His pace eased, his fingers darted up and down until he reached 27 January. He hovered there briefly. Then he broke into Sinhala. A birth had been recorded on that day. Was it? Could it? But it was a boy. “As you can see,” Amanda said jovially, “she is not male.”
As they left the building, Amanda remarked, “Well, at least we tried.” For Dilani, even this was progress. “Now I know I was not born here,” she said. Later Amanda shared her hunch about herself: that her birth mother was forced into placing her for adoption, and the hand-off was made by an acting mother. She suspected her birth mother was no longer alive.
Then she arrived in Colombo.
For the final meeting of her trip she entered an expat’s cool, well-furnished apartment where she met a short-haired, chatty housekeeper. When she remarked her daughter was born in 1985, or 1986, Amanda’s heart fluttered. Their masks came off, they sized each other up.
“Oh my,” the lady said.
“The nose maybe, could it be?” Amanda said.
She pulled open a new kit to take a saliva sample of her would-be-could-be-mother.
“Well,” she said wryly, “It will be crazy if you are my mother.” In two months, she would know.
“A big happiness for everyone”
Namal believed money was the main motivation behind the deceit. But was that the whole answer? In January this year, I visited the fake family’s home to try and find out. Nishan had not contacted them after learning the truth in 2020.
Inside the house, they still had a large framed photo of Nishan with the family’s father, in a smiling embrace. Beside it was an image of a soldier, probably the oldest son who had died in the war. The younger son Susanta was not home, but he gave me his side of the story over the phone.
When he was around 10, his mother told him she had previously placed a son for adoption. A few years later, Nishan showed up at their house, and it was a “big happiness” for everyone. They never did a DNA test to confirm the connection, Susanta conceded, but he simply believed what his mother had said. And the different names? He repeated what he had told Nishan: his mother had changed her name after marriage.
It was impossible to prove if this was another victim of a terrible error or a willing collaborator in a premeditated con. The only people who knew the answers were dead.
Nishan never got in touch with the social worker who he suspects deliberately sent him to the wrong family. “The person who found my fake mother found many mothers of adopted children and I think she did that as a business,” he said.
When I visited her home in Mount Lavinia, a posh suburb of Colombo, her neighbours emerged to say she had died just six months earlier.
“You didn’t love my father?”
On 12 July, Dilani Butink won her case on appeal.  The court ruled that the Dutch government and the adoption agency could be held responsible for failing to properly oversee adoptions like hers. If this ruling goes unchallenged, Dilani and others may be able to seek compensation from the state.
The same month, Amanda began the process of relocating to Sri Lanka for a year, with her daughter and husband. She has more projects in mind for her foundation. And one for herself. Her daughter occasionally reminds her: “Mommy, we have to find your mother.”
Andrew Silva continues to be besieged by calls from the women we met, asking if their children have been found.
Also, in July 2022, Nishan travelled to Sri Lanka as protestors stormed government buildings and toppled a serving president. Some western governments had advised against non-essential travel as the country grappled with an unprecedented economic crisis, but Dijkstra’s month-long trip felt essential to him.
On 14 July, he celebrated his forty-eighth birthday with his “real” birth family. Despite the fuel crisis, he rounded up 19 relatives in a minivan for a party at his guest house. He willed himself not to cry through the evening. Sated on beer, cake and happiness, he even braved a speech in Sinhala.
I arrived the following morning, and Nishan introduced me to his large and lively birth family. Nishan’s brother tore off cinnamon and curry leaves for lunch as his children careened through the house. His younger sisters half-joked that they would not have minded being placed for adoption. “He didn’t have to suffer like us,” said one. “And instead he was able to get a good education and is now in a good stage in life.” The siblings were amused that Nishan wanted to move to Sri Lanka, given the “dire situation” the country was in.
Their mother roamed the garden in a yellow dress, her face drawn and sallow. Nishan began to film as she sat down to speak to me. Unblinkingly, she started narrating how she became pregnant in her early twenties when visiting family in Galle. Aileen had previously told Nishan that he was conceived from a pre-marital affair.
Then, she said something she had probably never said before.
“The man took advantage of me,” she said. Her face was stoic. Nishan interrupted.
“You didn’t love my father?” he asked.
“I didn’t love your father. He exerted force. I don’t like to be reminded of it because it was a bad experience.”
Nishan gasped and stormed off. As he paced feverishly under palm trees a few metres away, his mother kept talking, unfazed. A 35-year-old married neighbour assaulted her when she was home alone. She claimed he later raped another woman too.
After he composed himself, Nishan insisted we continue the interview. Aileen talked about getting married and having seven children, though she continued to carry a deep gash in her heart. She even gave her second-born the name she had given her first: Nishan.
Nishan then showed her a photograph of the woman he’d thought all along was his Sri Lankan mother. Aileen recognised her from the convent. She remembered that the woman had also placed a child for adoption: a daughter. If that was true, perhaps it explained why Nishan’s “fake mother” had seemed genuinely moved to meet him.
Aileen then described the social opprobrium her own pregnancy triggered, how she kept Nishan’s story a secret from her younger children, how she prayed she would see him before she died. By the end of the conversation, Aileen was relieved to have poured out the story of her assault. “It’s better to talk about it than to keep it to myself and be in pain for a long time. I lived all this time without being able to talk to anyone about it.”
Nishan mulled this revelation over the next few days. In his head, he reassembled the memory of that first lukewarm encounter. Aileen’s initial reticence made sense now. She was not simply meeting her first-born then; she was gazing at the evidence of an unpunished crime. “She must have seen my eyes, and maybe I have similarities with my father,” he said, “Maybe that was something for her to confront.”
Over the next few weeks, Nishan spent time with his siblings and nieces. He cooked, bought groceries, handed out gifts, cycled on dusty roads and frolicked at the beach. He navigated family politics too, and small, everyday dramas. There were so many answers he still hoped for, and so many sutures left to heal. But, at last, he felt at home.
Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She writes for various national and international publications.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.