BELGRADE, Serbia -- For years, Mirjana Novokmet has tried to find out what happened to her first child back in 1978.
Novokmet, only 19-years-old at the time, was told at a Belgrade clinic that her baby boy was stillborn. She wasn’t allowed to see him, and she has not been able to determine with certainty why he died or where he is buried.
More than 40 years later, Novokmet is still searching for the truth. For her, the mystery surrounding her baby’s death can mean only one thing.
“I am certain that he is alive,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I believe someone took him or sold him, within or outside the country.”
Novokmet is not alone — hundreds of families in Serbia have voiced similar suspicions after being unable to collect their deceased children's medical records or locate their place of burial.
The chilling scandal made it to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled against Serbia in 2013 demanding that authorities create a mechanism to provide answers to parents in similar situations.
As a result, Serbian lawmakers are set to soon pass the long-awaited bill designed to try to establish the details of the cases in court proceedings or offer compensation when the facts cannot be determined.
Praised by the authorities as the right way forward, the bill has been criticized by the parents’ associations and independent experts who argue that it will serve to pay out the families rather than establish the truth.
In a last minute effort to address the criticism, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Friday evening announced changes to the bill that envisage forming a joint commission with the parents' representatives to handle the cases.
“We are in a very unfortunate situation,” Assistant Justice Minister Cedomir Backovic told The Associated Press. “Whatever we did wouldn’t be good enough.”
The draft bill dealing with the disappearance of children from Serbian birth clinics envisages that judges at four Serbian courts will be in charge of the procedures in any specific case, while any investigative work will be carried out by specially-trained police officers.
Where the fate of the missing babies cannot be determined, families will get compensation of up to 10,000 euros ($10,800.)
Backovic said the idea is to introduce some order into the “chaos” that dates back as far as the 1960s and the era of the former Yugoslavia — a former Communist—run federation whose breakup created seven new nations.
While criminal action is a likely cause in some instances, state negligence also played a part, Backovic added.
“What country has ever had reason to believe that doctors stole and sold children?” he asked. “Where did it ever happen?"
The Strasbourg-based court’s ruling against Serbia said the state violated Zorica Jovanovic's rights when it did not provide credible information about her child’s death or burial. The court initially gave Serbia one year to set up a mechanism to grant information to hundreds of other families in similar situations.
Critics of the proposed bill insist it won't establish a strong enough legal basis to uncover what they believe was an organized criminal enterprise that for decades kidnapped babies from hospitals.
At a protest earlier this week outside the parliament building in Belgrade, a few dozen parents demanded that the bill be withdrawn, angry that it would allow for cases to dropped if they seem unsolvable.
“No mother will agree to sell the truth about her baby for 10,000 euros,” Novokmet said.
Novokmet showed the AP an autopsy report for her baby that appeared to have no official stamp, along with a report from a pathology institute supposedly listing her baby’s tissue samples as someone else’s.
The Belgrade state funeral company, which manages the city cemeteries, has stated that it never registered a burial or cremation for a baby born in Jan. 1978 bearing her surname, Novokmet said.
Other cases bear striking similarities, she insisted. Hardly any of the parents were allowed to see, name or bury the babies who were usually born on weekends or holidays and mostly to young mothers, she said. Sometimes, parents were told records about their children were destroyed in a flood or a fire.
“Names of certain doctors and certain registrars appear frequently and that is why we believe it was an organized criminal group,” Novokmet added. “We have been fighting this battle for 17 years and the state has turned a blind eye.”
Some independent experts have joined the criticism of the new law, saying that a more concerted effort, including highly skilled investigators, was necessary.
Katarina Golubovic, a legal expert from the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, or YUCOM, compared the complexity of the problem with dealing with war crimes or organized crime.
“We are not talking about one, or dozens, we are talking about more than a thousand people,” she said.