10 years later, Bul­gar­ian nurses leave their Libya or­deal be­hind

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

PAZARD­JIK, Bul­garia: Bul­gar­ian nurse Valentina Siropoulo was once con­demned to death in Moamer Kad­hafi’s Libya. Ten years af­ter she and four col­leagues were re­leased and al­lowed home, ap­pre­ci­a­tion of their free­dom over­whelms mem­o­ries of their har­row­ing or­deal. “My busy day-to­day life lets me for­get the abuse. I have learnt to bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate my health, my free­dom, my fam­ily,” says the 58-year old.

She has re­sumed her work at the hos­pi­tal in Pazard­jik, a small town in south­ern Bul­garia which seems a mil­lion miles away from chaos-riven Libya. The five nurses were jailed in 1999, along with a Pales­tinian doc­tor, for al­legedly in­fect­ing over 400 chil­dren with HIV-tainted blood at a pae­di­atric hos­pi­tal in the eastern city of Beng­hazi. They were tor­tured while in de­ten­tion and twice sen­tenced to death. Tripoli only agreed to com­mute their death sen­tences to life im­pris­on­ment in 2007, af­ter which they were flown back to Bul­garia.

“I was ab­ducted one evening in 1999,” Siropoulo re­calls with a shud­der. “Men taped up my mouth, then tor­tured me for months, with elec­tric shocks, ba­tons and threats of be­ing at­tacked by dogs. The rest of the time I was ly­ing alone in a cell wait­ing for death.” She had en­joyed the work on a pae­di­atric ward, where she was much bet­ter paid than back home. But the for­eign medics were held re­spon­si­ble for tainted blood trans­fu­sions and ac­cused of de­lib­er­ately in­fect­ing 438 chil­dren with HIV.

‘Long match’

Their sav­ior came in the form of Ce­cilia Sarkozy, wife of the then French pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy, who vis­ited Libya twice in July 2007 for talks with Kad­hafi. De­spite an of­fi­cial French in­quiry, Ce­cilia’s pre­cise role re­mains un­clear, but the freed med­i­cal work­ers have no doubt she was in­stru­men­tal in their re­lease.

“When Ce­cilia came to bring us back I saw her like the Vir­gin Mary,” says Valya Tcher­veny­achka, now in her six­ties. One of those close to the or­deal is Bul­garia’s for­mer for­eign min­is­ter Solomon Passy, who de­scribes a tan­gled web of ne­go­tia­tors in­clud­ing Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence agents, and UN and EU of­fi­cials. “It was a long match played by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, then Pres­i­dent Sarkozy pops up in the 90th minute to score the win­ning goal,” Passy tells AFP.

France and the Euro­pean Union of­fi­cially thanked Qatar for its role in se­cur­ing the nurses’ free­dom, prompt­ing in­tense spec­u­la­tion that a large amount of cash had been in­volved. De­spite re­peated de­nials of a ran­som, a slew of con­tracts was signed be­tween Paris and Tripoli in the years fol­low­ing the re­lease and Kad­hafi made an of­fi­cial visit to France in 2007.

Sim­ple life

Last Novem­ber, a French mag­a­zine pub­lished doc­u­ments ap­pear­ing to ex­on­er­ate the med­i­cal work­ers and sug­gest­ing that the chil­dren were in fact in­jected with tainted blood by Libyan in­tel­li­gence and spe­cial forces com­man­ders. The testimony was found in a diary be­long­ing to Shukri Ghanem, who served as Kad­hafi’s prime min­is­ter from 2003 un­til 2006.

The diary, which had re­port­edly ended up in the cus­tody of French mag­is­trates, sug­gested the in­fec­tions were an act of hos­til­ity against Beng­hazi, a strong­hold of op­po­nents of the then-Libyan dic­ta­tor. For Kris­tiana Valtcheva and her fel­low in­mates, the en­tire or­deal is in the past. The 58-yearold spends her days serenely working on her hobby: paint­ing wooden wagons built by her doc­tor hus­band, who also spent time in a Libyan jail af­ter trav­el­ling there to look for her.

Pales­tinian doc­tor Ashraf al-Ha­juj now lives with his fam­ily in The Nether­lands, while two other nurses live in houses close to each other do­nated by a Bul­gar­ian phi­lan­thropist. The bi­ogra­phies, films and in­tense me­dia at­ten­tion have grad­u­ally faded and for­mer nurse Valia Cher­ve­ni­ashka says she’s done with look­ing back. “Our sen­tences will al­ways ex­ist, whereas Libya as a state has ceased to be,” she says. —AFP


BYALA SLATINA, Bul­garia: Bul­gar­ian nurse Valia Cher­ve­ni­ashka holds a kit­ten in the yard of her house.

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