NIKOLAEVO, Bulgaria (AP) — Attempts to track down the biological parents of a blue-eyed blond girl found living with a Roma couple in Greece have led authorities to an impoverished Roma camp in neighboring Bulgaria, where a couple with several other children says the child might be theirs.
Sasha Ruseva, a 35-year-old Bulgarian Roma woman, has said she gave birth to a baby girl four years ago in Greece while working as an olive picker, and gave the child away because she was too poor to care for her.
The Gypsy couple found with the child in central Greece, maintain they were given the girl by a destitute Bulgarian woman unable to raise her. They have been jailed on child abduction charges — which they strongly deny — while the girl, known as Maria, was placed into the care of a children's charity in Athens.
Maria's case has drawn global attention, playing on the shocking possibility of children being stolen from their parents or sold by them. But its handling by media and authorities has raised concerns of racism toward the European Union's estimated 6 million Gypsies — a minority long marginalized in most of the continent.
The Roma quarter in this small town in central Bulgaria houses some 2,000 people, nearly one-third of the whole population. The Gypsies, most of them jobless, live in extreme poverty in shabby houses. Children play in mud-covered streets through which pigs, cats and hens amble.
Minka Ruseva, a 14-year-old fair-haired girl and one of the Rusev family's nine children, stood in front of their dilapidated two-room house. Minka said she saw pictures of Maria on TV and believed she was her sister.
"I like her very much, she looks very much like me and I want her back home. We will take care of her and I can help my mother," she said.
Stoyan Todorov, a neighbor of the Rusevs', complained of the hardships he and his family face every day. He said authorities do not care about helping the Roma. "They come to us only in the eve of elections, hoping to get our votes," he said.
"Look how we are living in total misery. Years ago a man was murdered in our neighborhood and nobody paid attention, while now there are crowds of concerned people here because of one girl," he said pointing at the scores of reporters from across Europe who had descended on the area.
"The truth is that we do not have money to look after our kids," he said.
The 65-year-old grandmother of Sasha Ruseva, Zeynep, said her granddaughter had suffered after having to leave her child in Greece.
"She left the kid and took just 100 euros to buy tickets to get home to her other children," she said, but would not specify who gave Sasha Ruseva the money. "Afterward she was crying all the time for the kid. Later she couldn't find the money to go back. Sasha has to buy medicine and food for the children, and the money is not enough."
Sasha Ruseva and her husband were nowhere to be seen Friday. Her grandmother said they were taken away by "officials," and Bulgarian authorities say the couple is due to appear before a prosecutor for additional questioning later Friday.
In Greece, meanwhile, police said Friday they have arrested a childless couple on suspicion of buying an 8-month-old Roma girl and trying to register her as their own.
The suspects, aged 53 and 48, who were arrested in Athens on Wednesday and were expected to be charged with child abduction, allegedly paid a Roma woman 4,000 euros ($5,500) for the baby, a Greek police statement said. Authorities are looking for the baby's birth parents and potential intermediaries in the alleged transaction.
Under Greek law, child abduction charges can include cases where a minor is voluntarily given away by its parents outside the legal adoption process.
The same charges were brought against the couple with whom Maria was found living in a Roma settlement outside Farsala, in central Greece, a week ago. They have been jailed pending trial, are also suspected of fraudulently obtaining birth certificates for a total 14 children. The suspects and others in the Gypsy settlement say Maria grew up in a loving home and was accorded the same care as any other Roma child there.
Associated Press writer Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.