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Decades Of Torment: Serbian Parents Demand Answers On Missing Babies

Mirjana Novokmet shows her missing baby's birth certificate in front of her home in Zemun, near Belgrade, in 2013.

BELGRADE -- Mirjana Novokmet gave birth at a Serbian hospital in 1978. She still hasn't seen her child, but 40 years later she remains hopeful.

Novokmet is one of thousands of parents in Serbia who say their newborns were pronounced dead at hospitals but the bodies were never handed over and accompanying documents were inconclusive or nonexistent.

While nobody knows the exact number of babies who disappeared in Serbia, there are several thousand reported cases of lost newborns dating back to the 1970s.

The cases have generated speculation that the children were stolen by criminal gangs operating illegal adoption rings and are still alive somewhere.

Such suspicions have arisen because of the large number of cases exhibiting similar circumstances, such as a disregard for protocols and failures by medical staff to allow parents to see the bodies of their purportedly deceased children.

Serbian authorities claim that because the statute of limitations has passed, they cannot investigate the allegation.

Nonetheless, five years ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found Serbia guilty of human rights violations in the matter and ordered lawmakers to resolve the fate of the missing infants. Authorities in Belgrade are still just debating draft legislation aimed at establishing the facts.

Families of the missing babies protest in Belgrade on May 17.
Families of the missing babies protest in Belgrade on May 17.

Reason To Believe

Despite years of pressure from parents' groups, the government has been slow to take action.

For Novokmet, who heads one such group, the Belgrade Group of Parents, debate among legislators does little at this point to change decades of torment.

"I suppressed my suspicions. I tried not to look at other babies in baby strollers, being afraid I would recognize my baby. I have not seen my baby, I have not identified my baby, and I have not taken over and buried my baby. That is why there is reason to believe that my child is alive," she tells RFE/RL.

In 2010, Serbian ombudsman Sasa Jankovic noted administrative measures needed to investigate the cases were absent, including a lack of documentation.

He blamed the problems on the government, which a year later disbanded a working group that was looking at the cases, saying they were outdated and that a constitutional amendment was needed to pursue them.

That's when Zorica Jovanovic, another mother whose child disappeared after delivery, stepped in, taking her case to the ECHR, which eventually ruled in her favor -- and also awarded her 10,000 euros (currently $11,700) in compensation.

In March 2013, the court gave the Serbian government a year to create an avenue of redress for the parents, but that period has long passed with little in the way of results.

"We had ups and downs, but after receiving that verdict, we started going to various state institutions, presenting it to them. It was then that we realized that a majority of the institutions were not even aware of the verdict or that it was binding for the Republic of Serbia," Novokmet says.

'We Want Answers, Not Payoffs'

In April, the parents stepped up pressure on officials with a protest against the draft law the government is debating, saying it focuses on financial remuneration and avoids creating a procedure for investigating what happened to their missing children.

"The lawmakers didn't take into consideration our suggestions, our opinions, our ideas. Instead, they came up with the draft law that they wanted," Novokmet says.

The protest came after an appeals court upheld a verdict in the Kikinda region that imposed the ECHR ruling, awarding 10,000 euros to Bogdan Janjic, a father who never received any documentation or proof after being told his newborn infant died in the maternity ward.

Meho Omerovic: "It is a shame and a disgrace to send a message to parents that their missing baby is worth 10,000 euros."
Meho Omerovic: "It is a shame and a disgrace to send a message to parents that their missing baby is worth 10,000 euros."

Meho Omerovic, the head of the parliamentary committee on human and minority rights, has discussed the proposed law, known as the Missing Baby Act, with aggrieved parents.

He is pushing for the government to address the parents' concerns instead of trying to pay them off. For now, he says, he remains hopeful and acknowledges that legislative talk is cheap.

"I think it is important to talk to these parents, to understand their sufferings, their pain, and their wish to get to the truth, whatever it may be. Because that it is the only thing they are asking for," he adds.

"It is a shame and a disgrace to send a message to parents that their missing baby is worth 10,000 euros," he tells RFE/RL.

Janjic says he doesn't want the money, which he will give to his two children. He, too, believes his Dejan, the infant he lost two days after its birth, is still alive. And all he wants at this point is proof and an acknowledgement of what happened.

"Someone sold my son and this made a lifetime of hell for me," he says.