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Where Are Our Children

1 November 2002 KRAGUJEVAC, 1 November (Beta Press)--Milutin Manojlovic almost had a heart attack when a clerk at the administrative building of the Belgrade municipality of Savski Venac gave him two birth certificates. He was picking up a copy of his son Ljubomir's birth certificate, when he was also given the birth certificate of his daughter Nikoleta, who he thought had died 23 years ago. Ljubomir and Nikoleta were twins, and several days after they were born doctors told the parents their daughter had died. The parents, who had been certain their daughter was long dead, began searching and finally found her.

The Manojlovic case caused an outrage in Serbia and prompted other suspicious parents from across the country to inquire if their newborns were not in fact dead as they had been told, but had actually been stolen. The media speculated that a criminal network of physicians selling newborns was at work.

The Manojlovic family lives in the Serbian town of Sokobanja. In addition to Nikoleta and Ljubomir, they have an older son, Dragan. Manojlovic's wife, Radojka, gave birth to the twins in one of the biggest maternity hospitals in Serbia, in Belgrade. The municipal clerk told the parents that the register showed that Nikoleta was discharged from the hospital on June 25, 1979, the same day her twin brother left the hospital.

Immediately after the babies were born doctors told the parents that the baby girl was not well and had to be transferred to the Belgrade Neonatology Institute. The mother stayed hospitalized with the baby boy.

Eleven days later, the Manojlovics were informed that the baby girl had died. A person claiming to be a doctor said an autopsy had been carried out and that parents could not take the body, as the baby had already been buried in accordance to hospital rules. They were also told that they should consider themselves lucky that the other baby survived and that they should devote themselves to their two sons.

The Manojlovics say they had no reason for suspicion even though they were never issued a proper death certificate for their daughter. They decided to try to forget their pain and turn to nursing Ljubomir. This quiet acceptance lasted 23 years, until the shocking day when Milutin went to the municipal office to get the birth certificate.

In their attempts to find their child, who they now believed was alive, Milutin and Radojka received little understanding. "Don't ask me how I found Nikoleta. Yes, I'd be glad to have them sue me for what I did to find her, at least then the truth would come out," says Milutin.

"With help from certain people, I managed to get in touch with my daughter. Don't ask me how. I arranged a meeting with her. As soon as I saw her I knew she was my daughter," says Milutin. As he speaks of his encounter with the girl he believes to be his daughter, his eyes fill with tears.

Milutin then goes on to say that he found out that the girl, whose name is now Violeta, was given to a family that used to live in the town of Krusevac. Later, they moved to Belgrade. He has no doubts whatsoever that the girl is his daughter.

"This year Violeta came to Sokobanja on 5 May to celebrate her birthday together with her twin brother. "We gave her a gold necklace intended for her when she was born, 23 years ago. This is the first birthday we celebrated together, as a complete family," says Milutin, crying.

Nikoleta, or Violeta, came to Sokobanja with her sister from the family she lives with and with whom, according to the Manojlovics, she is very close. Milutin also says that the family in question was unable to have children for a long time, and then, according to what Milutin discovered, they conceived two girls in two years. The one he believes is Nikoleta was born in May 1979, and the other is a year younger.

Manojlovic also says that six months ago he petitioned a court to determine whether Violeta is indeed his daughter. He is still waiting for a response from the judiciary. Belgrade police say the Manojlovic case is still being investigated and that DNA tests will reveal the truth.

Milutin believes that organized crime is behind this. According to him, it is essential to expose the culprits because of other missing children and their traumatised parents. This is why he does not want to elaborate on the case, nor does he want his wife or children to make any statements. Violeta still lives in Belgrade, with the family she grew up with. The family does not want to talk to the press, and the girl has also declined comment.

Since they went public with their story, the Manojlovics have been contacted by a number of parents who lost their newborn babies. All their stories are similar: they were told their babies had died and were never issued proper documents or allowed to bury the bodies.

These families have now teamed up and are searching for the truth together. At the beginning of October over one hundred parents from across Serbia gathered before the Serbian government building asking for help. It is believed that there are about 300 families looking for their children.

Among them are Milka and Zivan Agatonovic, from Kragujevac. Their baby was born on 26 September 1974. The birth was premature, and their son weighed 1,600 grams, and was only 46 centimeters long. Immediately after giving birth, she was separated from the baby and told that he had to be urgently transferred to a hospital in Nis, because of an infection in the Kragujevac maternity ward.
She was told that she was to remain in Kragujevac.

The Agatonovics never saw the child again. When several days later they went to the Nis hospital to inquire about their baby's health, they were told that the baby had died six days before and that hospital staff had been unable to inform them because they did not have their address.

"We were young then, my wife was 19, and I was a few years older. We were to learn later that such couples were an ideal target for baby traders ... " says Agatonovic, presenting a thick pile of documents he managed to gather about his son. He claims that doctors in the Kragujevac hospital told him that the baby was completely healthy, but in Nis he was told that the baby had been sick even before it was born and had no chance of surviving.

The Agatonovics are convinced that their son is alive. As proof they say that they were not given the baby's body or shown the death certificate which was issued even before the autopsy was carried out.

Vera and Milovan Vukomanovic, from Donja Sabanka near Kragujevac, also claim that they lost their baby in the Kragujevac hospital under mysterious circumstances in 1987.

Shortly after she gave birth, Vera was told the baby had died. This came as a shock to her and she asked to see the body. One of the doctors, however, told her: "We have performed an autopsy; the baby is cut into pieces." But when she insisted, he added: "The baby was cremated and is already in the sewer." The Vukomanovics also claim that they were never given documents to verify the death.

The head of the Serbian police force, Srbislav Randjelovic, talked with the parents in Belgrade and told them that every case would be investigated separately. He said that since July, 66 cases involving suspicious death of newborn babies had been probed and, according to him, no irregularities in hospital procedure were discovered. Randjelovic also said that 60 cases were still in the hands of prosecutors and that the authorities were doing everything in their power to shed light on each case.

This failed to placate most of the parents. One mother, Vesna Knezevic, says that her impression is that they are only buying time, for lack of a response to evidence that newborn children were abducted in the hospitals and later sold.

In Kragujevac alone, some 30 families are looking for their children. Local media, especially Kragujevac TV, have also joined the pursuit for the truth. Kragujevac TV aired a serial titled "Where Are Our Children?", but the issue still remains shrouded in silence.

Staff members of the Kragujevac hospital maternity ward are unwilling to speak without permission from the management. The managers, on their part, instead of responding to the flood of questions, have threatened to sue. When the search was at its peak, Kragujevac hospital director Ljiljana Mijatovic was on Mt. Zlatibor. She told journalists that she was on vacation and didn't know anything.

Her assistant, Ljiljana Bajevic, was also unwilling to give statements. She added that the managing team had not debated the parents' requests.

The only manager willing to talk to the press was an assistant director for surgical issues Dragan Djokovic. "This is not your business. Whether this will be clarified or not, is God's will. Ours is only to do what we can," Djokovic said, adding that he personally believes all data should be made available, especially to the people who are directly concerned.

Finally, the Kragujevac hospital's legal representative, Milan Dumic, addressed the public saying that he did not know "which families are looking for their children," but that the hospital has proper documentation on all such cases.

One of the Kragujevac doctors mentioned by many mothers, Bogoje Nikolov, in October sued two mothers for slander and mental anguish.

About one hundred parents from across Serbia gathered at the initial hearing in the Kragujevac Municipal Court. Nikolov arrived with a group of private bodyguards. Judge Gordana Radovic, after investigation, decided to dismiss the charges as unfounded.

Seven Kragujevac families have collected documents on their officially dead children and pressed charges against the staff of the Kragujevac hospital for changing their family status and abduction of minors that took place in 1974, 1985 and 1987. Their charges, however, were dismissed because of the statute of limitations.

Municipal prosecutor Kosara Radovanovic said that the cases could not be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations and that parents could only demand that the chief health inspector go through the entire documentation. She added that if any irregularities were determined, the parents could seek financial compensation.

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