This blond, blue-eyed girl, believed to be aged five or six, was found living with a Roma couple in central Greece. Greek police are trying to identify her on suspicion that the child may have been abducted from her parents. Greek Police/Reuters
The mystery is solved — but the future of the young girl known only as Maria is still uncertain.
DNA tests have confirmed that a Bulgarian Roma couple living in an impoverished village with their nine other children are the biological parents of the girl found in Greece with another Roma couple, authorities said Friday.
Genetic profiles of Sasha Ruseva, 35, and her husband, Atanas, matched that of Maria, Interior Ministry official Svetlozar Lazarov said Friday.
Ruseva says she gave birth to a baby girl four years ago in Greece while working as an olive picker but gave the child away because she was too poor to care for her. She since has had two more children after Maria.
Maria has been in a charity's care since authorities raided a Roma settlement in Greece last week and found she was not related to the Greek Roma couple she was living with. Her discovery triggered a global search for her parents, fears of possible child trafficking and interest from authorities dealing with missing children cases in Poland, France, the United States and elsewhere.
Human rights groups have also raised concerns that the news coverage about Maria and the actions taken by authorities were fuelling racist sentiment against the European Union's Roma minority, who number around six million.
The Bulgarian prosecutor's office and Greek authorities were "seeking clarification on whether the mother agreed to sell the child," the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Family lives in poverty
The Ruseva family live in a dilapidated, mud-floored house outside the remote Bulgarian village of Nikolaevo, 280 kilometres east of the capital, Sofia.
The Roma quarter here houses some 2,000 people. Most are jobless, living in extreme poverty, trying to stay warm in shabby houses. Children played Friday in mud-covered streets as pigs, cats and hens ambled by.
"We all live in one room — my husband, I and all the kids," the gaunt and dark-haired Ruseva told reporters late on Thursday, holding her naked two-year-old boy Atanas.
"Life is so hard. We have no jobs and we have no money," she said. "I'd like to have my child back if they say she is mine. We have no money to take care of the kids but ..."
Minka Ruseva, a 14-year-old who is one of the family's children, who range in age from two to 20, stood in front of their dilapidated two-room house. Minka said she saw pictures of Maria on TV and thought 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.
"The family lives mostly on social benefits and child support, as both are long-term unemployed," said Milena Dyankova, an official with the state agency for Child Protection, in an interview with the Reuters news agency.
Many Bulgarian Roma take seasonal work abroad
Many of the local Roma go for seasonal jobs in neighbouring Greece picking olives and oranges but insist that despite their poverty they would not sell their children.
"If she had sold the child, she would have built a big house," Angel Rusev, Maria's uncle, told Reuters.
He said he had taken care of the children when the parents were working in Greece between 2008 and 2010.
Stoyan Todorov, a neighbour, complained of the hardships that he and his family face every day. He said Bulgarian authorities do not care about helping the Roma and come "only on the eve of elections, hoping to get our votes."
"Look how we are living in total misery," he continued. "Years ago, a man was murdered in our neighbourhood and nobody paid attention. Now there are crowds of concerned people here because of one girl."
As he spoke, he pointed at the scores of reporters from across Europe who had descended on the remote area.
"The truth is that we do not have the money to look after our kids," Todorov said.
Greek couple charged with abduction
Greek officials, fearing that Maria's 2009 birth record contained false information, have ordered a nationwide check of all Greek birth records in the last six years to ferret out welfare fraud or other irregularities.
The Greek Roma couple, now in pre-trial detention, have been charged with allegedly abducting Maria and committing document fraud. They told authorities they had received Maria after an informal adoption and their lawyer said Friday they planned to seek legal custody of the girl.
Under Greek law, child abduction charges can include cases where a minor is voluntarily given away by its parents.
"We are very, very happy with this outcome, because we have proved what we said from the outset ...the adoption, as it happened, was not of a legal nature but it was not abduction," the Greek couple's lawyer, Costas Katsavos, told the AP.
"Now, as the birth mother has been found, we will ask to gain — through legitimate processes — custody of little Maria, whom the family truly sees as its own child."
At the Roma camp in Farsala, central Greece, where Maria was found, residents said the couple had been vindicated.
"They are saying the woman stole the girl. She didn't steal her. The Bulgarian gave the child to her ... we've had Maria here for ... years," neighbour Christina Pavlos told The Associated Press.
There was no word on where Maria herself hoped to live. The Greek charity "Smile of the Child," which has been looking after her, would not comment on the case.