Lela Tabidze and Vakhtang Makhniashvili look through photos as they sit side-by-side on a couch in their living room. Their albums include smiling pictures from camping trips and the first day of school back in their home country of Georgia when their two kids, Mariam and George, were little.
But there’s another picture in the room.
Large picket signs bearing an image of their daughter Mariam stand in a corner of the modestly furnished apartment near Eglinton Avenue and Mount Pleasant Road, a stark reminder that she has been missing for nearly a year now.
She was last seen on the morning of September 14 after walking to Forest Hill Collegiate with her younger brother. He went in the back of the school; she left him to enter through the front.
And then she vanished.
“The most difficult part is that it’s almost a year and we can’t talk about Mariam’s happy times because it is very difficult,” says Lela. “We have to separate Mariam from our memories and not talk about her because it’s very painful not knowing.”
Police still have no idea what happened to Mariam. Back in October her backpack was found in a parking lot at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue.
A massive effort ensued to find her. Police interviewed students at local schools. Then they knocked on thousands of doors in the neighbourhood, certain that someone must have seen something that could help explain what had happened to the teen. Aquatic units searched the rivers. They found nothing.
Her parents turned all their energies towards finding their daughter and threw themselves into the manhunt.
“I had a job before … the next day (after Mariam disappeared) I called in and I quit,” says Lela.
This wasn’t what the couple had planned to be doing after immigrating to Canada and reuniting with their children, whom they hadn’t seen for five and a half years.
Up to the day of Mariam’s disappearance, their story was typical of many newcomers to Canada.
In 2004, the couple decided to leave Georgia because of economic and political instability. Leaving the children with Vakhtang’s mother, the two went to California to try and pave the way for their family to emigrate. Vakhtang, who has a PhD in philosophy, did research at the Claremont School of Theology and the two saved money in hopes of bringing their children out to join them.
The couple moved to Toronto in May of 2009 and were joined by their children the following month.
They describe the summer that followed as the happiest time of their lives, the culmination of the dream they had worked so hard for.
Days were filled with sightseeing trips to Niagara Falls and the Royal Ontario Museum. In September, the kids started school. They had attended just four days of classes when the dream was shattered.
“It changed everything. It paralyzed our family completely,” says Lela. “We were going out, we loved being in nature. We did lots of walking and sightseeing … Now, we try to drag ourselves and go out with our son together and do some walking, but it’s not the same and never will be.”
Eleven months later, Mariam’s disappearance is still baffling.
“It’s still an enigma,” says Detective Steve McIlwain of 53 division’s youth bureau. “She basically disappeared off the face of the earth and we’re no closer to knowing (where she is) now than we were then.”
With no signs of struggle and no witnesses, Mariam’s parents can only speculate that she was abducted by an individual or by an organized criminal gang. Police are also at a loss to explain what happened, but believe someone must know something.
“I believe there’s somebody out there with information that may seem inconsequential to them… but may lead investigators to see the bigger picture,” says MacIlwain.
But there are some scenarios Mariam’s parents say are simply impossible, one being that she ran away.
“Mariam wouldn’t have run away,” says Vakhtang. “This is one point which has been clear for us from the beginning.”
By her parents’ account, Mariam is a studious, stable and determined girl. Good at math and science, she had been contemplating a degree in engineering and was planning to use her first year in Canada to figure out where to pursue university studies.
Lela describes her daughter as a cautious girl who kept close to the family in her new surroundings.
“I remember once we went to the Toronto Jazz Festival and the street was very crowded. And if I walked fast, she tried to keep up with me — she was afraid to lose me,” says Lela. “Home was the safe place for her. I can’t imagine she would have run away.”
Her father also points out she had not taken anything she might need if she were running away and that the previous day she had completed her homework.
“Especially in Canada, if she were unhappy, where would she run? She doesn’t know anything. She hadn’t even used the TTC,” says Vakhtang.
Later, in December, there were reports she’d been seen out west near Calgary. But police found no evidence she had been there.
The unresolved crisis has clearly taken its toll on the family, who are also now dealing with lengthy legal proceedings stemming from an incident this past May when Vakhtang was arrested for allegedly stabbing a neighbour in a dispute.
Because his current bail conditions stipulate that he not come within 500 meters of the victim, the couple has been forced to move from their Shallmar Boulevard apartment to a new building further east on Roehampton Avenue.
He’s also unable to work as he must either be at home or accompanied by his wife at all times.
Although they acknowledge the matter has been distracting, the couple says their focus remains on finding their daughter. As the anniversary of Mariam’s disappearance approaches, they remain hopeful.
“Is it difficult to imagine that the time has passed so fast and we have nothing? It is of course something impossible to imagine when you have a normal life,” says Lela.
“I still believe that Mariam is out there… I still have faith and believe that we will get to the truth and we will get to Mariam.”
Anyone with information about Mariam Makhniashvili is asked to contact police at 53 Division at 416-808-5300 or anonymously by calling 222-Tips.
For at timeline of the Mariam Makhniashvili case click here.
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