We had spent four weeks in Norway trying to track him down before travelling to the other side of the world to find him. We had tried the police and the church, checked registers and records, and done our best to unearth information, all before making our way up skyscrapers and along city streets, mingling with the millions of inhabitants of Manila, to the city’s newspaper offices, and all for three long days and nights; we made sure to do whatever we needed to in order to find the newborn infant from the churchyard in Oslo, the baby who was now a man of 23 years of age. And then, after everything, he reveals himself to us in a message. He continues writing:
Only a few moments beforehand, it had seemed so unlikely.
“Since we don’t have any friends in common on Facebook, your messages went straight to my spam filter. That’s why I didn’t read them. I didn’t mean to ignore them, just so you know.”
“That’s good to hear! We’re definitely relieved to have found you.”
We write that we can meet him wherever is convenient for him.
“OK, let’s meet for a coffee. I live in Metro Manila, close to a shopping mall called Robinson’s Otis. Maybe we could meet there?”
“Great! 13:00 tomorrow? Thank you for the work you’ve put into tracking me down. God bless you and your people,” he writes, before continuing:
“The people of my birthplace,” he wrote. That meant that he was aware of his special connection to Oslo, at any rate. The city in which he had entered the world. That would certainly simplify matters. Now we no longer needed to worry that he knew nothing about his birth. We had carefully worded our emails to him for precisely that reason, stating that “we’d love to hear about his dramatic and touching ties to Norway”, being careful not to expose the fact that he had been discovered as a newborn baby in a plastic carrier bag in a churchyard on the west side of Oslo.
It was as we were standing in that same churchyard just one week beforehand that Benedict de Vibe had called us.
“Come here, there’s something I want to show you! Make it quick, before I leave the office.”
We arrive an hour later and make our way up a staircase. We walk through a fog of cigarette smoke, and it is as if we’ve been transported back to the year 1991. Inside the office, de Vibe opens an envelope.
“Here!” he says.
“My wife found some amazing photographs at home.”
The photos had been taken at the baptism. They show the priest, Claes Tande, along with mother and child, two nuns, a Filipino priest, de Vibe’s wife and their young daughter. The gathering at the baptism in Oslo are neatly lined-up in the church with Victor Olav in the arms of his mother and the priest.
De Vibe talks about the frenzied days before their luck had changed, when he had first received a call from the police.
“A woman had been arrested and charged according to Criminal Code paragraph 244. That particular paragraph was virtually never applied; it concerns a crime committed by a mother against her child in the 24 hours following birth.”
He describes his first meeting with the woman at the police station. De Vibe recalls her intense, conflicting emotions. She was overjoyed that her child was alive, but she felt desperate about the terrible charge hanging over her, the accusation that she had attempted to take his life.
“She had believed that her child was dead. The police accepted her word on the matter. But they carried out their own investigations, just to be certain. She couldn’t have purposefully tried to take the life of her child. We were left with a tragic case that could only end well if mother and son were reunited. It was quite something to see her when she realised that the police eventually believed her and that she would be reunited with her young son.”
De Vibe can still picture the hugs, the embraces. And then, the lawyer recalls, the woman wanted the boy to be baptised, meaning she’d need godparents. She didn’t know many people and asked if he’d be godfather.
“I agreed, of course, as did a few nuns. It was a wonderful event. Even some of the police officers wanted to attend.”
“From an outsider’s perspective, it might be hard to understand why the police believed the mother?” we suggest to the lawyer.
De Vibe mulls the suggestion over for a few seconds before responding.
“I spent a lot of time and energy wondering why she did what she did. Various thoughts cross one’s mind. But she told the police a story that there was no reason to dispute. Parts of her story could be corroborated by her friends. Then there were medical indications that things could well have been as she had suggested, that the child had appeared motionless and dead to her, and that she had abandoned him in a fit of despair. All without any thought that he might actually be alive.”
“There wasn’t anything to suggest that she’d done anything to the baby,” de Vibe says. Had they found any indications of that kind, things would have been very different.
“The police deserve credit for having acted so unusually swiftly and humanely in this case, and all in the best interests of the child. There was never any talk of taking the woman into custody, for instance.”
De Vibe was keen to see how things would go for mother and son.
“A year later, we heard that things were going well in the Philippines. After that, communication ebbed away and things fell silent. I haven’t heard a peep since then, not until you got in touch.”
“She was really on the brink of a breakdown.”
We had spent so long looking for him. Asbjørn Langslet. The professor and paediatrician had been present when the newborn was admitted to the hospital. He had placed the baby in an incubator, warming him up and helping to save his life. His name was listed alongside a telephone number, but he never took our calls.
We call another number listed at the same address on Harald Løvenskioldsvei, a number listed as belonging to a woman named Gro Langslet.
“We’re calling from Dagbladet Magazine. We’re following up a story from 1991, when a man named Asbjørn Langslet helped to save a newborn baby found in Oslo. We were…”
“That’s my husband. I can certainly imagine that to be true. He was a guardian angel for so many.”
“Is he available?”
“He fell ill around eight to ten years ago. He lives in a nursing home now. He’s been there for four years.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“He’s 75 years old now, but he has nothing to offer the world these days. He suffers from advanced dementia. He’s lost to us. But he was such a fantastic man, he made such exceptional efforts to help so many people. He deserves a story all of his own. Though that would be difficult now. I remember that little boy, too. My husband told me all about him.”
Back in Manila
Now, 22 and a half years later, we are on our way to meet the same boy in a café in a shopping mall in Paco, Manila.
“Robinson’s Otis shopping mall on Paz Mendoza Guanzon Street, please,” we tell the taxi driver. We drive past numerous restaurants, modern cafes, lifestyle businesses, wellbeing centres and gadget shops.
The moment we’ve waited months for will be here in just a few minutes. Our meeting with Victor Olav. Or at least, we hope so.
In the half-day that has passed, we have already learned a good deal about his life. Our Facebook friendship with him tells us which schools he has attended, and the fact that he’s educated in the fields of accounting and finance. He was recently employed by a large company. He is an active churchgoer. We are able to read about the films, games and books he likes. All in all, he has led a seemingly innocuous life.
Beyond this, we are also able to browse through a number of interesting photographs, including one of him with what must be his mother. Does this mean they still have a good relationship?
And isn’t that his mother – and father – by his side at his university graduation? His mother has the same small mole as we can see in the photographs taken in Oslo in October 1991.
A few weeks earlier, Jan Anker-Nilssen, the doctor who had first seen to the baby, had welcomed us into his office in Oslo.
“I’ll never forget it. The experience has stayed with me. It always will,” he says.
Anker-Nilssen can picture the whole scene: “Unni had been on reception, but all of a sudden she came running into my office. She was carrying a bag.”
“‘Someone’s found a baby in a plastic carrier bag in the churchyard!’, I heard her say”.
A moment later he realised Berit Pihl Johansen was standing in the room with them. Jan had looked after her and her children for years.
He remembers removing the baby from the bag. ‘Is it still alive?’ he had wondered to himself.
“Then I felt the baby draw breath. Speed is of the essence here, I thought to myself, this newborn is very cold. It was a blessing that it had survived at all.”
“I’m almost 70 now. Being a doctor at Ullevål Hageby Health Centre was my whole life. People who worked on television, artists, celebrities, the best of the best, people who keep society moving forward; being their doctor was interesting, but it’s moments like that one that really make you feel like you’ve done something meaningful.”
He had worked as a doctor on board a ship, in Ethiopia, for the UN, in Kosovo and for the people of Ullevål Hageby, but seeing to the newborn infant that day had surpassed each of those experiences.
“A doctor’s work is often trivial and repetitive. You might see 10 to 20 patients every day. But this was a special moment, something so rare, the kind of thing you’d never experienced before and never would again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
They had acted calmly in the moment, he and his wife Unni, but it was only afterwards that things had sunk in and they’d needed to sit down, “to allow ourselves to tremble over a cup of coffee”.
“But Berit Pihl Johansen had done just as much to save the child, as had the man who had found him. Nobody should be in any doubt about that; the baby could so easily have died. I think it’s quite something that his mother insisted on taking the boy back to the Philippines, too. He was lucky to survive, and even luckier to have been reunited with her. Pass on my regards if you manage to get in touch with them. I’ve thought about them a lot.”
THE DOCTOR’S STORY
“It was a real “once-in-a-lifetime” occurrence.”
“I’m here. Where are you?” Victor Olav writes at one o’clock on the dot. We can’t see him. Have we come to the wrong place? Could there be several branches of Starbucks in this four-storey shopping complex? Two minutes pass, then three. Are we really destined to lose track of him now?
But then it happens.
We almost trip over him in the doorway. He had waited outside for us. He steps inside. Baggy jeans, a grey t-shirt, a pair of converse sneakers. A shy smile, and the air of a kind, charming, young man who would do anything for anyone. His handshake is gentle and our palms clammy, no doubt due to the heat.
“So…” he begins, a little nervous for the first few moments.
We ask if he’d like a coffee, but he smiles at us and insists on buying.
“Who is it for?”, the barista asks.
‘Olav’, the woman behind the till writes on Victor Olav’s paper cup.
He pulls off his satchel and places it down on the table. Victor Olav – Victor from Victory, after the way he had achieved victory over death – was now sitting in a café in Manila, leaning in with one finger on his chin, which is resting in his right hand. He smiles.
Things become more relaxed as we begin talking about his job; the intense, precise aspects of a career in auditing. He works with customers on the other side of the world, meaning that he starts work at nine at night and finishes at six in the morning. He had worked as an accountant for another firm straight after graduating university. He likes numbers, he tells us.
The voice of departed singer Nick Drake resonates from the café stereo:
"The sun went down and the crowd went home / I was left by the roadside all alone / I turned to speak as they went by / But this was the time of no reply"
We tell him we have a gift for him. The photographs from his baptism, taken by one of his godparents, as well as the photographs snapped by Dagbladet’s photographer in the baby care room at the hospital on the day he left Oslo.
His eyes are filled with a zest for life, his mouth wide open in a yawn.
“The first photos ever taken of you, we’re guessing. This is you at 11 and 13 days old,” we tell him.
We pass them across the table. His head bowed, his gaze is fixed on the photographs, the first ever taken of him, his brown eyes focused behind his spectacles.
He studies the images intently in silence, staring down at the 23-year-old prints.
“That’s my mother,” he says, pointing and smiling.
“I was so small!”
Silence once again.
“You look like a strong, spirited little boy, don’t you?”
“Ha, I do, now you mention it. How did you come across these photographs? This is a wonderful gift. Thank you.”
“When did your mother tell you about what happened in Oslo?”
“Well, when she felt that I was old enough to hear about that kind of thing. We were at home, where we used to live in San Pablo, Laguna, just two or three hours from here. She just starting telling me about it out of the blue.”
San Pablo, ‘the city of seven lakes’, he tells us. At the foot of three mountains, it is a tourist attraction with beautiful waterfalls and earth that is perfect for those who wish to cultivate it. It was here that he had grown up, between seven crater lakes that had provided sustenance, livelihood and leisure activities for several generations before him. In the middle of the city was the public playpark Katuparan ng Pangarap, a name that translates as ‘Where dreams come true’. They lived here right up until the economic development in San Pablo levelled out, then saw that the future lay elsewhere. The whole family moved to Manila. His mother and father had wanted to give their children an education, as well as a more secure upbringing.
“How old were you when your mother felt that you were ready to hear the story about what happened in Norway?”
“I was five or six when I first heard about it. We talked about it some more later on. I remembered then that she had said something about it when I was younger.”
“So you heard the whole extraordinary story when you were young?”
“The whole story…? What do you mean, the whole story?”