Tuam, Ireland (CNN)The day after Michael O'Flaherty was born, his mother tried to see him. But, she told him, she was stopped by a nun who told her, "Go mind your own business, your baby is gone."
For decades, Ireland's mother and baby homes were shrouded in secrecy. Some say the veil still hasn't lifted
Like other women who gave birth at the Tuam mother and baby home in Ireland, the nuns didn't forbid O'Flaherty's mother from seeing her newborn son again, they just didn't tell her who her baby was, or that he was in the same building. The very same home where she was required to stay for 12 months after giving birth.
"My mother could have picked me up, but she couldn't have necessarily known," O'Flaherty told CNN.
The boy would stay in the home for another five and a half years. He doesn't remember his time inside; his first memory of it was from the day that he left.
Today, at 71, O'Flaherty retraces the steps he took that day with a group that's become like family.
They walk in front of an unassuming patch of grass, a square bit of land flanked by a children's playground on a housing estate. Behind them, a Virgin Mary statue hangs on the site's gray walls, a perimeter of aging stone punctuated by green vines that climb over the parapet. In the corner, a tiny pair of children's shoes are attached to the wall in memoriam.
Below their feet lie the bodies of hundreds of babies.
Any of the group walking there today could have been among them. But they were the fortunate ones.
They are the survivors.
Bound together by being born into one of Ireland's most notorious mother and baby homes -- church-run institutions where unmarried women were sent to deliver their children under a veil of secrecy, silence and shame for decades -- the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance believe that their stories are at risk of being wiped from history.
In February, a commission set up to investigate what happened in those homes will release its final report. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters has heard testimony from survivors for more than four years. But activists say while it has operated under the pretext of transparency, it follows a pattern of the state muzzling the victims. And as the state edges closer to passing a bill that could prevent other survivors' testimony from being made public, those activists say the time for survivors' voices to be heard is paramount.
The commission would not answer any of CNN's questions but said that "the Commission's final report is scheduled for completion in February 2020. Your questions will be answered in that report."
Life for children like O'Flaherty, born at the Tuam home which operated from 1925 to 1961 and was run by the Sisters of Bon Secours, was plagued by malnutrition, neglect and trauma.
Mortality rates for children were far higher than national averages, with 802 child deaths recorded