The book Life on sale, by journalist Dragana Petrović, focuses on the cruel truth of sales of newborn babies
Most mothers that find themselves inside a childbirth center fear two worst things – baby mix-up or newborn theft, the bitter truth grew to a almost Biblical scale, because it has been going on for over half a century. We were first aware of this horrible occurrence through gossip, because as it always goes, someone has to know someone who suffered from this greatest life tragedy – a newborn, a healthy baby, dies all of a sudden, the parents aren’t allowed to see it and that’s where all the traces are lost. Over the last couple of years, people have been more vocal when demanding that the reported cases get looked into as well as any leads that may solve this decades long baby theft business. By some studies, 10 thousand parents in Serbia suspect to have lost their children in this way. The whole story intrigued journalist Dragana Petrović who chose this tragic life tale as inspiration for her first novel.
Why did you choose the topic of missing babies for your first novel?
The topic of missing babies has been in the field of my attention for 15 years now. The first time I encountered it was in 2003, when I interviewed our famous opera diva Radmila Smiljanić for Frankfurt weekly news. In her sincere confession she expressed her doubts that in 1969 her daughter was stolen after birth. The baby was born alive, got a grade 10 at birth, but after two days she was notified that the girl died. It was a shock to me, I honestly couldn’t comprehend the fact that someone could steal your baby from a childbirth center. All those stories that I listened to for years had one common thread – the way in which the parents were notified that their baby had died, unspoken explanations, inability to see the deceased child, as well as the fact that no one knew what happens to the body of the deceased baby… It all made the parents doubtful. Many contacted me, told me their stories which I always took with a reserve… I tried talking to doctors, but most of them claimed that it was all an inflated journalistic scandal. But still, even they couldn’t explain some things, among other, why weren’t the parents allowed to see and burry their dead child as well as the fact that it’s very hard to find any information on deceased babies for which there is a possibility to have been stolen. You should also consider the fact that it’s been decades and most of these cases have turned cold so it’s impossible to gather any valid information. This doesn’t happen only in Serbia, cases were noted in America, Spain and a couple of months ago a huge affair about stolen babies occurred in Romania.
How do realistic facts get intertwined with fiction? What do the numbers say, how many missing baby cases are there and how many have been solved?
The book is inspired by true events, but I upgraded and adapted the story, it is a novel after all. The book Life on sale relies on information I have been gathering for years, but the story and characters were adapted to a novel so that the readers would find it more interesting, and the story itself would grab attention. Therefore, it is a novel, and not a documentary style book. Information and data on missing babies vary, but more that 10.000 parents suspect to have lost their child in this way. There are cases in which parents managed to find their children after many years of searching, but I wouldn’t dare to speculate with a precise number of solved cases.
As an experienced journalist how much material have you gathered and how?
I embedded everything that I found out about baby theft in the book. There was a lot of material, but it’s interesting that all the stories of parents who doubt to have their child stolen have an incredibly similar story. Coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences…
Doubt is the worst, especially because it lasts for years and even decades
The problem of missing babies has been going around for almost half a century and is still a taboo. Solving and stopping it is against whose interest?
That question has been haunting me for fifteen years and I honestly don’t have an answer. But as a journalist and a human I believe that each parent who has founded doubt that his child was stolen from a childbirth center deserves to know the truth. I wouldn’t like to deal with investigating in this manner, nor am I qualified to. Yet, it is in jurisdiction of the state authorities and they have to clarify these cases and put an end on this baby theft affair once and for all.
What has the data been like for the past couple of years. Are babies still going missing for birthing centers?
The numbers seem to have been falling, but mostly due to a change of policies in birthing centers. Firstly, the baby is places on the mothers breast right after birth, meaning that she gets to see it and touch it before it gets taken away. Secondly, by introducing the so called baby friendly program in birthing centers the baby is constantly with the mother, so there is less of an opportunity for something to happen to the baby without the mother noticing… Unfortunately, like many other things this program hasn’t been properly implemented in Serbia since Unicef founded it in 1991, so many birthing centers in Serbia are in the process of cancelling or have cancelled baby friendly. I wouldn’t want people to understand this as an insult to doctors, because we have in fact some amazing doctors and most of them are experts devoted to their jobs. Of course as in any other business there are different sorts of people. It is in most doctors interest to shed light on various affairs considering the medical board, from baby theft to stories of corruption. It’s a shame that a smaller number sheds darkness on a profession as a whole which is also vey difficult and demanding.
You spent a lot of time talking to parents who experiences this evil faith. What is their goal?
All parents want just one thing – to discover the truth about their child no matter what it is. Doubt is the worst, especially because it lasts for years and even decades. From talking to them I found out that it would be easier for them to bear with the fact that their child had indeed died instead of doubting it, to be turning around after each child in the street that could resemble theirs…
After all, start with yourself – how would you feel if after 20, 30 years you found out that your mother and father aren’t your biological parents?
Thanks to DNA analysis it’s much easies to find out whether someone is actually genetically related. Unfortunately, many found children don’t want to accept the fact that their real parents aren’t the ones who spent their childhood with. Do you have any more information about that?
Before anything that is a huge emotional shock for the child. In most cases the children refuse to accept it, because they fear they will have to choose between their biological parents and the ones they consider their mother and father, the ones who raised them. Most of those children, who are adults by now, didn’t even consider how they got in the families they grew up in. After all, start with yourself – how would you feel if after 20, 30 years you found out that your mother and father aren’t your biological parents? Those are difficult emotional crashes and time is necessary for a child to accept it, that is if the people that raised him even admitted the truth. And in most cases they don’t, because they fear the consequences. That makes those breakdown even worse. Even children who know to have been abandoned by their parents and later on adopted, struggle with accepting themselves, can you even imagine what would happen to a child when it finds out that it was bought.
Were you at any point scared because of the topic you were researching. Were there threats?
No, there wasn’t fear. This is a painful topic that shows up in the public from time to time and has been for 15 years now. I haven’t received any threats, at least for now. I hope that there won’t be any, I just spoke about it in a different way, through a book – about something that has been talked about for a decade and a half.
I wouldn’t want to judge anyone, nor do I have the right to, I just told a story. How someone will understand it is completely individual, like each one of us should do according to our own consciousness.
What was the hardest?
It was hardest to realistically depict emotion and through a prism of a young French woman who finds out that she is one of the sold babies from Serbia. While writing I was emotionally shaken because it is a very painful topic and hard to write about. It was also important not to make it pathetic and I believe to have managed that.
Once the book was written a new problem occurred. Many publishers didn’t want to support the topic. Why?
First of all I am a new name and didn’t believe that it was that hard to publish a book. Publishers mostly aren’t interested in new writers no matter how good your story or book is. It’s also a very touchy topic. My fight for the novel Life on sale to see the light of day was three years long. I talked to many publishers, sent manuscripts, some would respond many wouldn’t. There were those who liked the manuscript but not the topic so they would ask: “Does it really have to be baby theft? Can it be changed?” Of course I never agreed to it because I believed in my book. And then I meet Biljana Alavanja, owner of the publishing house Samo korak (Just a Step) who is a writer herself, and went through a similar experience with her first book Marionette. The novel focuses on domestic abuse through her grandmothers story. She read the manuscript and decided to stand behind me and my book. I am thankful to Mrs. Alavanja for being courageous enough to publish my book.
The Book Fair happened recently and once more the author of the best selling novel is a reality star. Your comment.
Honestly I have nothing against everyone that can or believes they can writing a book. When it comes to the quality of the book I would refrain from commenting, especially because I haven’t read hers. The final verdict will be passes by readers and time. Time is the best sieve and separates all.
It seems that it’s trending to have your own book. How hard is it to write a quality book?
Yes it seems that anyone can write a book today. In addition to that, if you are any sort of celebrity it’s even easier to publish it. But no matter what anyone thinks quality is still the deciding factor. Readers may buy your first book because you are a celebrity, but if you aren’t a good writer, it will be hard to sell the second one and thus your career as a writer will end. I didn’t write a book to become famous, nor do I want to. I started writing because I felt the need to note down on paper a story inspired by a true unusual life story, to write a novel on a painful topic that isn’t in the spotlight. How hard is that? It’s not simple, because no matter the topic you are interested in, you put a piece of yourself in it, your emotions, whether you want it or not. In order for you to write a truly good book, and I hope mine is, you need time. When I started researching and gathering information on baby theft I didn’t even consider writing a book, that only occurred to me once I realized that I had enough material for it. The writing itself lasted for two years, I think that is the optimal timeframe if you want to write a book.
What was your favorite on this years Book Fair?
I feel like a kid in a candy store at the Book Fair, I don’t know what to look at first. My favorite was Vuk Drašković’s new book Aleksandar of Yugoslavia because I’ve been reading his books for decades, I believe that he’s a much better writer than he is a politician and I’m happy that he’s back doing what he does best – writing. Of course, there is the new book from Biljana Alavanja The Labyrinth of Life inspired by a true story, but also Simonida Miljković’s new book Diagnosis: Love, because it looks at the topic of love from a completely different perspective.
To me writing is like breathing, whether it’s a book or a journalistic piece it’s less from importance
Are you considering a new book?
Oh yes, but I wouldn’t want to reveal what it’s about. I can just say that once more it is an emotional, hard and painful topic, which unfortunately, many people and families in Serbia suffered from. It’s my goal to make the next book better than the first, because that is the only was to advance in life. Will I succeed in that, the readers will decide.
The journalistic profession today is very compromised. Objective journalism is almost extinct, because there is always someone’s interest. What will happen it the future, are you considering any new endeavors in that field?
I was lucky enough to learn about journalism in Politika 26 years ago, from real professionals. Unfortunately, what is called journalism today has nothing to do with real journalism. There are very few offices were you can work in this field professionally and on a quality level, and of course those offices are hard to get into. It seems as no one needs real experiences journalists anymore, they just need someone to complete a task. Everything has been lowered to a level of tabloids, websites that lookalike and information that gets dragged in circles. The reasoning? Profit is the priority, and where money is the only goal journalists have nothing to look for. Their job is to search for the truth, and not to run after clicks or prints. Honestly, I believe that the journalistic profession as it used to exist is going extinct. When it comes to new endeavors I am considering it. To me writing is like breathing and it’s only important that I have an opportunity to write, whether it’s a book or a journalistic piece it’s less from importance.