CNN's Karl Penhaul interviews birth parents of "Maria"
Mother says: "I will take care of her. She's mine."
DNA match traced birth parents of Maria to the village of Nikolaevo
Greek Roma couple who raised Maria are in custody charged with kidnapping
The birth parents of “Maria” stumble out of a studio in the Bulgarian capital, minutes after their first major TV interview.
Surrounded by bright lights and state-of-the art technology, Saska Ruseva and her husband Atanas Rusev are a world away from the tumbledown Roma village where they live in central Bulgaria.
Back in Nikolaevo, there are no street lights. Their house is made of mud brick and straw.
The couple were a world away too from Maria, the blond toddler found during a police raid of a Roma camp in Greece. DNA tests last week showed the Resevs were her biological parents.
“She’s my child. I’m her mother. I love her. I gave birth to her. I would tell Maria that I’m your mother. This is your father,” she told CNN. “I will take care of her. She’s mine. You can’t change that fact.”
The Rusevs are being investigated by Bulgarian police on suspicion they sold Maria for illegal adoption. A Greek Roma couple – Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulo – who were found looking after the girl are in custody charged with kidnapping.
Both couples deny any wrongdoing. Ruseva is adamant she left Maria in Greece because she was too poor to feed her but did not sell her or receive any payment.
“People say I received 400 leva (about $310 dollars) but how could I receive money? They keep saying that on TV. Do you think I would sell my child for 400 leva?” she told CNN. “I’d like to build a house. I don’t have a proper house or a proper bed. Nothing. I didn’t receive anything. I’m so poor.”
Speaking to Ruseva through a Bulgarian interpreter can be a bit complicated. Ruseva like most of her Roma neighbors from Nikolaevo only speaks a smattering of Bulgarian. Her native language is a Turkish dialect mixed with some Roma and Bulgarian words.
But bit by bit she explained the series of events that ended with Maria being abandoned with a stranger in Greece.
Ruseva said she and her husband left for Greece in 2009 to look for farm work. She says she left her eldest daughter Katia, now 20-years-old, to care for the family while they were away.
Ruseva says she was so thin she did not realize she was even pregnant with Maria.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant. I didn’t even have a belly,” she said.
Maria – whom Ruseva originally named Stanka – was born in a hospital in the Greek town of Lamia, about 70 kilometers from Farsala and the Roma camp where she was discovered earlier this month.
Ruseva says she spent three or four days in the hospital. She believes that’s where her troubles started.
“The doctors in the hospital didn’t give me any papers. If they had given me documents I could have taken her to Bulgaria,” Ruseva explained.
“I didn’t know the language. The doctors said something like ‘go away’ and I grabbed the baby and got out,” she said.
Ruseva said she took care of her baby for the next seven months, breast-feeding her while her husband picked odd jobs harvesting fruit and vegetables.
Times were so hard that the couple said they spent many nights sleeping on the streets of Lamia or bedding down in nearby olive groves, with the newborn.
Seven months after Maria was born, the Rusevs were hired to pick oranges for a few days at a farm near the Greek town of Patra. There Sashka Ruseva met a woman who realized she was desperately poor and unable to care for Maria.
“A woman came to me and said she was Bulgarian not Greek. She told me if I wanted she would take care of my baby and that I could come back and collect her later,” Ruseva said.
“She gave me her phone number and when we got back in Bulgaria we telephoned her. We tried to call but the phone was switched off,” she added.
So far during the investigation, police forces on both sides of the border had suggested Ruseva met personally with the Greek Roma couple – found caring for her earlier this month – and passed off the baby directly.
Defense lawyers for Greek couple Salis and Dimoupolou say their clients met Ruseva face-to-face. But when asked about the Greek Romas, Ruseva gave a blank stare.
“Who is this man Christos Salis? I have never met these people,” she said.
Although she denies meeting Salis or Dimoupolou, Ruseva cannot remember many details about the woman to whom she passed off Maria.
“I have no clue what her name was. I did not ask and she did not say. That woman said leave your girl here and I’ll take care of like I was her mother. I trusted her,” Ruseva said.
“The woman looked good. Her skin was not too pale, a bit like us. She was blond. With dyed blond hair,” she said.
Despite the gaps in her story, Ruseva says she clearly remembers the moment she said goodbye to Maria.
“I kissed her. I was crying. I was worried. My heart was breaking,” she said.