In 2022, Georgian student Elene Deisadze was scrolling through TikTok when she came across the profile of Anna Panchulidze, who bore an uncanny resemblance to her. After months of conversation and friendship, both discovered separately that they were adopted. Last year, they decided to undergo a DNA test, which revealed they were not only related but identical twins.

"I had a happy childhood, but now my entire past felt like a deception," Anna, an English student, told AFP. The sisters are among tens of thousands of Georgian children who were illegally sold in a decades-long baby trafficking scandal. This scheme, exposed by journalists and families seeking lost relatives, involved stealing babies from their mothers—many of whom were told their children had died—and selling them to adoptive parents in Georgia and abroad.

Journalists have uncovered that these illegal adoptions spanned over 50 years, orchestrated by a network of maternity hospitals, nurseries, and adoption agencies that colluded to take children from their parents, falsify birth records, and place them with new families for cash. Elene and Anna, both 19, began unraveling their hidden past two years ago.

"We became friends without suspecting we might be sisters, but both of us felt there was some special bond between us," Elene, a psychology student, told AFP. Last summer, their adoptive parents independently revealed to the girls that they had been adopted, prompting them to take the genetic test that confirmed they were identical twins.

"I struggled to process the information, to accept the new reality—the people who had raised me for 18 years are not my parents," said Anna. "But I feel no anger whatsoever, only immense gratitude to the people who raised me, and joy at finding my flesh and blood," she added. The test for Elene and Anna was arranged with the help of Georgian journalist Tamuna Museridze, who runs a Facebook group dedicated to reuniting stolen babies with their parents.

The group has over 200,000 members, including mothers who were told their babies had died shortly after birth but later discovered they might be alive. Museridze set up the group in 2021 to find her own family after learning she had been adopted. She soon uncovered the mass baby-selling operation.

"Mothers were told their babies had died shortly after birth and were buried at a hospital cemetery," Museridze said. "In fact, hospitals had no cemeteries, and babies were being secretly whisked away and sold to adoptive parents." The new parents were often unaware the adoptions were illegal and were told fabricated stories about the circumstances.

Some people, however, consciously chose to circumvent the law and buy a baby to avoid decade-long waiting lists, Museridze told AFP. She has evidence that at least 120,000 babies were stolen from their parents and sold between 1950 and 2006, when anti-trafficking measures by reformist president Mikheil Saakashvili eventually quashed the scheme.

In Georgia, new parents would pay the equivalent of many months' salary to arrange the adoption, while babies trafficked abroad were sold for up to $30,000, Museridze said. Elene's adoptive mother, Lia Korkotadze, decided with her husband to adopt after learning they couldn't have children a year into their marriage.

"But adopting from an orphanage seemed virtually impossible due to incredibly long waiting lists," the 61-year-old economist told AFP. In 2005, an acquaintance told her about a six-month-old baby available for adoption from a local hospital—for a fee. Korkotadze said she "realised that was my chance", and agreed.

"They brought Elene right to my house," Korkotadze said, never suspecting there was "anything illegal". "It took months of excruciating bureaucratic delays to formalise the adoption through court," she said. The tale of Anna and Elene mirrors that of another set of twin sisters—Anna Sartania and Tako Khvitia.

They were separated at birth and sold to different parents, managing to reunite years later after finding each other on social media. More than 800 families have been reunited thanks to Museridze's Facebook group. Successive Georgian governments have made multiple attempts to investigate the scheme and have made a handful of arrests over the last 20 years.

Interior ministry spokesman, Tato Kuchava, told AFP that an "investigation is underway" into Museridze's revelations, but declined to provide further details. Georgia's Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said last week in parliament that Tbilisi is among the world leaders in combating trafficking. But Museridze says the state's response has been lacking.

"The government did nothing tangible to help our efforts."