'The child has disappeared': Armenian women fight to find their lost children

Author: Hasmik Baleyan

Photos by Avetis Avetysian

For 20 years, Syuzanna Patvakanyan has been a mother without a child, grieving her daughter in absentia and desperately looking for her.

Syuzanna was just 16 when she found out she was pregnant.

The baby may have been unplanned but was not unwanted. Syuzanna discovered she was carrying a girl. She dreamed of naming her Stella and raising her.

At first everything was just as she imagined. She gave birth in Yerevan, at the Republican Institute of Reproductive Health, Perinatology, Obstetrics and Gynecology.

But things started to go wrong right almost immediately after Stella was born. Doctors told the baby was too ill to take home, and tried to convince her to give her up.

Syuzanna Patvakanyan and her lawyer are sure they will find justice and Stella will be found.

Alone and exhausted, Syuzanna was presented with a blank piece of paper and told to write her name on it. Today she believes that paper was used to put her baby up for an illegal adoption.

“I never wrote that I was giving up my baby, I never wanted to get rid of her," she says.

"I just wrote that I was the mother of a child and that I named my child Stella Patakanyan."

She notes that the examples of the document show it was clearly doctored after she signed it: she had written on a white piece of paper, and later her signature appeared on a proper adoption waiver form.

"This document was falsified, they wrote my height as if I were 171 cm tall. There is even a seal on the paper but not the name of the treating doctor—there are so many falsifications. I was told to sign, but I asked them how I could sign, since I was a minor. I can remember it clearly," she says.

"My child was not even taken to the orphanage. The child has disappeared."

Syuzanna claims that this document was forged, as she never signed an adoption agreement.

Syuzanna, 36, has spent the last 20 years tracking down her lost child. She has refused to marry and refused to give up.

She started by begging the hospital staff for information about her baby, but no one could tell her anything.

Stella's father eventually moved abroad but, together with Syuzanna's family, he has tried to help her track down information that could help find Stella. Syuzanna also sought out the names and addresses of adoptive parents who received children around the time of Stella's birth—and adopted children who would be around Stella's age. There is no sign of her daughter.

Attempts to force the police to act on her case long fell on deaf ears. Doctors were mute, and without a court verdict stating the adoption was illegal, the police did not have the right to look for Stella. 

An estimated 728 mothers in Armenia share Syuzanna's fate. In some cases, like Haykuhi Khachatryan, the mothers are told the baby died, or was a stillbirth. Others recount being told, like Syuzanna, that their baby was too ill to survive outside the hospital.

There is one constant in nearly all the cases: Dr. Razmik Abrahamyan*, the director of the Republican Institute of Reproductive Health, Perinatology, Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Razmik Abrahamyan has told journalists that the organized struggle by the mothers is an ordered attack against him.

Razmik Abrahamyan has insisted that he had nothing to do with the adoptions.

Dr. Abrahamyan also figures prominently in Syuzanna's case.

His signature is on the document that she allegedly signed to give up her baby. But Syuzanna's lawyer Marat Kostanyan argues that even if Syuzanna did sign something, the doctor did not have the right to put the baby up for adoption.

In 2013, Syuzanna and her lawyer tried to sue Dr. Abrahamyan in force him to give her information about her child's fate. A court threw out her request, citing a lack of evidence of any crime.

But Syuzanna notes that police officers have told her there is evidence that a family in Yerevan took in a child around the time Stella was born. They have refused to release the adoption papers to Syuzanna and her lawyer, however, due laws that protect the secrecy of adoption.

Susanna Patvakanyan's lawyer regularly sends letters to the relevant authorities, trying to push them to start new investigations.

Law enforcement officials have said that the confidentiality of adoption must be protected by law.

Other families, including Haykuhi, also fought to get information from Dr. Abrahamyan about their children. In Hayhuki's case, she was never given the right to see her son's body or bury him.

“When my baby was born, I asked them for permission to hug him, but they didn't give me the baby. They kept me under the influence of medicine that put me to sleep and they took my baby. After the baby was born, Razmik Abrahamyan asked the other specialists if the baby's body was blue, they said no," she recalls.

"They claimed that the baby was dead... I was nine months pregnant. How could he still be dead in my womb when I could feel him move?"

Haykuhi begged the hospital for any information about her baby, but the administration refused to provide anything, even a DNA sample. Shortly after she was discharged from the maternity ward, she found herself back in the hospital with complications following the birth. 

While she was recuperating she decided to speak out about her baby and the hospital’s actions. "I posted on Facebook what was happening to me, and mothers who had similar stories started to write to me. I compiled an online document and organized a signature campaign to get justice. That's how we came together,” says Haikuhi, noting that several hundred mothers have reached out to join the group, Armenian mothers.

The group began organizing protests in front of the General Prosecutor's Office in Yerevan, much like Syuzanna had been doing for years.

Haykuhi Khachatryan insists she will use every legal opportunity to find justice and expects the judges to be fair.

Many of the mothers who lost their children claim they were deceived by medical workers who told them their babies died, while documents show that the infants were adopted.

There are also elderly people among the parents looking for their children. They claim that their children were taken away from them 40-45 years ago.

Mothers note that at first they could not believe that they could be treated so cruelly.

A potential breakthrough happened for the group when the National Security Service launched a criminal case against  Dr. Abrahamyan and others at the hospital. It is not clear what prompted the investigation and so far no one has been sentenced over the children's disappearance. Dr. Abrahamyan and several other individuals have been charged in the case; all have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

Haykuhi Khachatryan periodically collects data on mothers who lost their children and passes it to law enforcement bodies.

The mothers say they will not stop fighting until they find their children.

This mother says that the new investigation and court hearing give her hope that she will find her son.

Donara Shahazizyan claims that 42 years ago, her daughter Nana was taken away from her at Margaryan hospital and illegally adopted.

One of the mothers who lost her baby. She claims she was told her baby was dead, but documents show the baby did not die and she was adopted.

A father who lost his baby has also joined the mothers’ struggle.

But Syuzanna notes that Deputy Prosecutor Armen Harutyunyan recently met her. After two decades of striving to be heard, finally law enforcement told her what she had been waiting to hear.

"He said that there are new circumstances that may lead to new legal processes," she says.

"If that happens and it is proven in court that I did not give my legal consent to give up my child, I am sure the police will be able to find my child."

 *On December 18, 2019, Dr. Abrahamyan and several other officials at the Republican Institute of Reproductive Health, Perinatology, Obstetrics and Gynecology were detained on suspicion of illegally separating children from their parents. They have all been formally charged and have pleaded not guilty. They are currently free, awaiting the end of the court trial. Only one of the five defendants was arrested. 




Chai-khana Survay