Award Winner's Serial
News / Serbia 2017
BELGRADE Mirjana Novokmet gave birth to a baby boy in 1978 in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics of the Clinical Center of Serbia. She never saw her son and was later told he had died. She never saw or identified his body, however.
She is one of a number of parents in Serbia who claim their newborns vanished and must have been “stolen” by medical staff in hospitals.
“I wondered for years where and how to start a search and uncover the criminal gang that took our children,” Novokmet said, adding that her struggle had gone on for 15 years now.
Novokmet and other parents of vanished newborns say the doctors often told them that their babies had died shortly after birth but refused to allow them to see the bodies.
Although nobody knows the exact number of missing babies, it is estimated that in Serbia, there are around 1,500 reported cases.
Parents suspect the involvement of organized crime because of similarities in their stories: the cases always involved doctors, paramedics and coroners, the disregard of protocols, and the fact that parents were not allowed to see the body of their child. Parents claim children were stolen and then given up for adoption for money.
But police and institutions have been unable to solve cases or launch investigations since the statute of limitations had been reached.
The organisation Anti Trafficking Action, ASTRA, that launched a helpline number for missing babies in Serbia, wrote on its website that a great number of calls received since the opening of the helpline were in connection with the cases of newborns who went missing from maternity wards from the 1970s until the present day.
Following months of public discussion, Serbia’s Ministry of Justice sent a draft law to the Council of Europe, seeking experts’ opinion and expertise, the ministry told BIRN in a statement. The new law proposes financial compensation for parents whose children went missing from maternity wards.
“Members of the [ministerial] Working Group have adopted most of the recommendations submitted by the Council of Europe,” the Ministry noted in its written response.
The law, as proposed by the Serbian government last October, would provide the families of missing children with up to 10,000 euros for their loss. But many of the parents who claim their children were stolen are not satisfied with the proposed solution.
They want the state to investigate what happened to their lost babies. Novokmet says the proposed law contains a huge flaw, as it does not envisage any such investigations with wide powers.
“The most significant [thing] that should be deleted from the proposal is Article 21, Paragraph 3: ‘If the facts which explain what happened to the missing child cannot be determined, the court will … ascertain that it cannot determine the status of the missing newborn child.’
“It is terrible and shameful to make a law when it is clear in advance that all parents will be classified under that article,” she said.
Serbian Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic said in a report in 2010 that a number of administrative procedures necessary for the resolution of these cases were absent. He said irresponsible action toward the documentation of these events had occurred and he accused some state officers of treating family members inhumanely.
Jankovic said that because of this lack of vital documentation, he was unable to determine whether someone had illegally separated any of these babies from their families.
The working group set up by the Serbian government a year later then abandoned further processing of cases on the grounds that they had become obsolescent. This means that none of these cases can be further investigated in future, unless the constitution is changed.
Novokmet said she feels anger towards these irresponsible individuals because the bond between a mother and her child is the biggest, strongest and most unconditional love of all.
“Who is preventing you from getting to the truth about the fate of your child? Who is hiding these individuals or groups, and where is the responsibility, if we are a state with the rule of law?” she asked.
“Every person has an inalienable right to life. What happens when they take that right away from you on paper? Nothing, [they] push our problem under the carpet,” she added.
The case of these missing babies escalated further in March 2013, when the European Court of Human Rights issued a verdict in the case of Zorica Jovanovic vs Serbia. This found Serbia guilty of violating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on respect for family life, by failing to provide families with due information concerning the fate of these lost newborns.
The court gave Serbia a year to secure the establishment of a mechanism to provide individual redress to all parents in the same situation as Zorica Jovanovic.
The court also ordered Serbia to pay Jovanovic 10,000 euros in non-pecuniary damages.
Jovanovic had claimed in her application to the court that a day after she gave birth to a healthy boy in a hospital in town of Cuprija in September 1983, the doctor told her that the child had died.
The doctors did not allow her to see the body because it had apparently been sent for an autopsy in Belgrade. Novokmet said that she and other parents hoped that, together with government institutions, they can come up with a common solution that is best for the parents, and said she also hoped the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights would be implemented in full.
“The only solution is [to establish] the truth about the fate of our children,” she said, adding that proposed law only partially meets the terms of the European court verdict in terms of the proposed award of damages.
“It is very difficult because there is no understanding from the state for the suffering and pain [she has gone through] finding out where my first-born son is,” Novokmet said.
She is unhappy with how matters rest and said that after years of pressure and struggles to get state institutions to investigate and prosecute cases of “missing babies”, the authorities had simply “found the easiest way to close our story” by means of the proposed law.
She and other suffering parents want their wishes to be taken into real consideration, rather than being treated only as figures in meetings.
“But there is no political will,” she concluded.