It took exactly four minutes to steal Andreas Laake's baby son - the length of the court hearing that swept away his paternity rights. Some 26 years later, Laake recalls every detail of the trial: his aching wrists cuffed behind his back; the musty smell of the courtroom; the steely voice of the young female judge. Then there were the vague words of the social worker who said that, after his attempted escape from the German Democratic Republic, ''We do not believe Mr Laake has the ability to bring up his son for the purpose of socialism.''
Laake was not even allowed to defend himself. In court, he said just four words: ''I do not agree.'' Several weeks later his son, Marco, was adopted by people who were considered, in ideological terms, much more reliable parents. ''Since then, I've spent half a lifetime searching for him,'' Laake says.
It took a matter of minutes for Katrin Behr to be separated from her family, too. It was a cold winter morning in 1972 when three men in long dark coats knocked on the door to arrest her mother. Behr was 4½ years old and can still remember the panic in her mother's voice as she urged her daughter to get dressed quickly. But Katrin was left behind. The last words she heard were, ''Be brave. I'll be back tonight,'' before her mother was spirited off to a socialist boot camp. It would be 19 years until they saw each other again.
Separated from her mother at the age of four-and-half ... Katrin Behr.Stealing children was one way the GDR muzzled its people - Behr and Laake belong to an estimated 1000 families torn apart by the socialist authorities. Forced adoptions were a tool that the regime ''could impose on virtually anyone who was considered suspicious'', Behr says; all it took to be judged a bad parent was to infringe on vague ''socialist guidelines''. In Behr's case, her mother, a single parent, was arrested after she had lost her job and decided to stay at home to care for her children - a major transgression in the eyes of a state that believed in compulsory labour.
''I desperately tried to cling to a positive image of her,'' Behr says, ''but any abandoned child would start to doubt that love after 19 years.'' She was granted limited access to her adoption file after German unification, learning her mother never had a chance to get her back and spent several years in prison. Still, it took Behr a year to get in touch.
Three years ago, Behr set up a support group for the victims of forced adoptions and since then the 43-year-old has been contacted by hundreds of people still searching for their children, parents or siblings. Most of them feel betrayed twice over. The GDR destroyed their families and the unified German state did nothing to redress the injustice.
Walking through the dismal Leipzig suburbs feels like being transported back 20 years. Laake, a slim, frail man of 50, has tried everything to find his son. He has posted notices on the internet. He has sent letters to politicians. He has recruited lawyers and private investigators. And he has continually been reminded that although times and political systems change, his situation has not.
He is eager to tell his story, he says, despite the intimidation he has experienced. Laake and his family have been attacked by a man in the street; his car has been damaged twice; someone broke into his cellar; the only photo of his son as a baby has disappeared. But Laake says he is not afraid. ''I am certainly not going to be paranoid. Not after all these years.''
Laake's career as an ''enemy of the socialist state'' was never political. It started as a harmless teenage rebellion. He refused to join the youth organisation of the ruling Socialist Unity Party and at school in the 1970s he often wore a faux stetson and a black denim suit he'd made himself. This provocatively ''western'' outfit made him a target for his teachers' criticism. ''But my mother always supported me,'' Laake says. ''Our family agreed on the importance of personal freedom. As long as I can remember I wanted to get out of East Germany.''
Early marriages were common in the GDR and so, at 19, Laake proposed to his childhood friend, Ilona, who came to share his dream of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Three years into their marriage, when she was expecting a baby, they decided to flee. Their idea was to cross the Baltic Sea overnight in an inflatable rubber boat. ''But when you are on the run, you stop thinking,'' Laake says. ''You are in a sort of survival mode. It's all about: get on the water. Cower down in the dinghy so you're not shot. Then paddle for your life.'' They did not even make it to the water. ''You can't describe the pressure you feel when there are five Kalashnikovs pointing at you.''
As an ex-prisoner and attempted refugee, Laake is officially acknowledged as a victim of political injustice, and he has even been granted a small monthly pension by the German government. But as a betrayed father, there are no documents proving his case. The GDR authorities effectively covered their tracks. Laake never received any official papers about his trial and because of privacy laws his son's adoption file is closed to him for 50 years. The only person who has limited access to the file - other than the case officers - is Marco and there's no way to know whether he's even been told he's adopted.
Marco was born and put up for adoption while Laake was under arrest; his wife had buckled under the massive pressure to give up their child. ''She was only 21 years old, she was afraid, they threatened to make her life hell, they mentally broke her.'' Laake knows she had no real chance to prevent the forced adoption but the couple nevertheless fell out over the loss and are now divorced. ''In the end I simply couldn't forgive her,'' he says.
Telling his story, Laake shows me a number of photographs of Marco: in a rowing boat, aged eight, and as a teenager at a party. They were given to him just a few months ago, as a result of his persistent campaign, by a social worker who is apparently in contact with Marco's adoptive family. She also read out a short letter, supposedly from Marco, now 26, who said that he has a good life and does not wish to get to know his natural father. Laake was not allowed to see the letter himself. ''His language sounded clumsy and strangely impersonal,'' he says. ''As if someone had desperately tried to put himself into Marco's position and then made the whole thing up.''
Laake knows that ''there is no law that could turn around my situation''. When the unification treaty was signed in 1990, the new German state had not distinguished between legal and illegal adoptions, so every case today is dealt with according to the old West German law, which prohibits natural parents from finding out about children they voluntarily gave up. The builders of the new German state 20 years ago either forgot to classify ''adoptions against the will of the parents'' as a violation of human rights or, as the historian and GDR expert Uwe Hillmer suggests, they simply were not interested. ''Even members of the Kohl government admitted internally: forget about the past,'' Hillmer says.
Laake refuses to accept that the data protection law is the only reason he is prevented from contacting Marco; he suspects Marco's adoptive parents don't want their son to know the circumstances of his adoption. ''If they told him,'' he says, ''it could destroy their family.'' He keeps turning questions over in his mind: what if Marco's clumsy letter was written by someone else? What if old Stasi networks are still operating in Leipzig? What if Marco's adoptive parents are former party officials trying to hide their past?
Behr is helping Laake with his investigation and worries about his safety. Until recently, she didn't believe the rumours about Stasi networks being operational but ''looking at Laake's case with all its dodgy incidents made me change my mind'', she says. After Laake was attacked in the street, police advised him to search for a new flat for his own safety.
Behr has another concern. Many victims of forced adoption build up high hopes that things will change for the better once they find their natural family. ''They focus on a happy ending that is never going to happen.''
Laake knows there may be no happy ending for him and the problem of East Germany's lost children ''is probably not solvable''. Nevertheless he will carry on searching for Marco. He has started to call the adoption office twice a week and he is also planning a sit-down strike outside the office, ''with a sign around my neck: Give me back my son!''
He says he doesn't expect anything from contact with Marco. ''I could even understand if he didn't wish to meet me.'' But he wants to hear that for himself. Laake is tired of all the threats and delays. ''All I want is certainty. That's the minimum a father can expect.''