For Bulgarian nurses, freedom isn't easy

A year after being released from prison in Libya, where courts had accused them infecting children with HIV, five nurses face tough living at home.

Eric Dessons/jdd/
Storybook ending? Bulgarian nurse Valia Tcherveniachka’s daughter stands in the free apartment her mother received after her release.

For eight years, five Bulgarian nurses were locked in a Libyan prison, accused of intentionally infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV, and dreaming of the day they would get released and expose the charges as fraudulent.

But that day came and went more than a year ago, and now the nurses find themselves facing an increasingly stark reality as they adjust to life back in Bulgaria.

While they're working with the producers of the Oscar-nominated "Hotel Rwanda" to make a film based on their story, the real life version has had anything but a Hollywood ending.

Although prominent Libyan authorities admitted that the nurses were tortured into confessing, some Bulgarians still believe that the nurses are guilty. Others view them as opportunistic, and trying to exploit their situation for unreasonable compensation. In reality, many of the nurses now say they're struggling to make ends meet.

"I'm very disappointed in humankind," says Valentina Siropulo, one of the nurses who has returned to the hospital she worked in before traveling to Libya. "Not only because of the way we were treated in Libya, but also the extreme negative reactions here in Bulgaria."

From the outset of their detainment, Bulgarian officials did not portray the nurses' arrest as a human rights violation, even as scores of Western medical professionals presented evidence that the Libyan hospital system was to blame. Instead, Bulgarian officials treated the nurses as citizens who had committed a crime abroad and should be extradited, and tried domestically.

"[The Bulgarian government] framed it as a question of international justice, not whether they were guilty," says Ruslan Stefanov, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia. "So many Bulgarians were not convinced of their innocence. And now that the nurses are back, some see them as ungrateful."

The quintet is still working to clear their names and pressing the United Nations Human Rights Commission for compensation from Libya.

Due to bureaucratic policy, the nurses even lost their government healthcare. Bulgarians must pay an annual fee for healthcare every year, which the nurses did not pay while they were in prison.

As a result, they're now required to pay more than 10 years' payments that they missed before they can have access to healthcare. To date, the government has been unwilling to bend the rules for them.

Although a mobile phone company provided the nurses with modest apartments and mobile phones, some Bulgarians now use these small gains as cause for attack.

"How many millions did Bulgaria spend to protect them in Libya, and now they attack the government?" Says a woman in Sofia who asked only to be named as Kalinka. "Besides, they volunteered to go there!"

The nurses were released in July 2007 after the European Union paid $400 million in compensation to the AIDS victims' families as part of a French-brokered deal. Within an hour of touching down in Sofia, the nurses were pardoned.

Less than a month later, Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, appeared on Al Jazeera and admitted that the nurses were indeed innocent.

Nevertheless, life remains challenging for the nurses.

Kristiyana Vulcheva was highly outspoken about their case when she returned, but after more than a year of legal battles and public skepticism, she's reluctant to even speak with reporters over the phone.

"It's not too much to ask for: just healthcare after spending eight years in prison," says Ms. Vulcheva. Within minutes of speaking, though, she cut the conversation short, explaining, "I'll get very angry. And I want to keep my health."

Among the other nurses, one ran for public office and lost. Another recently divorced, her marriage reportedly strained by the eight years apart from her husband. Ashraf al-Hadjudj, a Palestinian internist who was imprisoned with the nurses, received Bulgarian citizenship after their release and has since married a Bulgarian woman. But in Sofia, he's been unable to get a hospital job and now works in a "1 euro" shop.

Still, some Bulgarians remain empathetic to the nurses.

"They were victims there, and now victims in their own country," says Vera Gotzeva, a magazine editor in Sofia. "But it's worse here, I think, because they've also lost their identity and anonymity."

In the meantime, the nurses say they're hoping to give back by working with a French foundation that helps Bulgarian orphans.

While the outcome of their legal battles remains uncertain, Siropulo hopes the film based on their ordeal will clear their names.

"This film would help the world understand our pain," she says. "The more people in Bulgaria and in the world who realize this, the more likely it is such a thing will never happen again."

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