Emanuela Delibsi wants to quickly return the things to the cupboard, otherwise Nikos will start crying again. Her little 12-year-old brother has been upset and not sleeping well since Maria was taken away -- along with their parents. Sometimes he starts sobbing for no apparent reason. But Maria's things are still lying on the bed with the turquoise sheets: a Barbie and a baby doll, two stuffed animals, coloring pens and a small plastic dragon. Delibsi -- 17 years old, yet already married -- sits down on the bed's pillow. She is wearing a scrunchie on her ring finger.
Delibsi is Maria's sister, the small blond girl whose picture was disseminated by media around the world last week. She's not the biological sister, though, because Delibsi's mother, Eleftheria Dimopoulou, is not Maria's biological mother, as a DNA comparison with the parents has shown. "But does that give them the right to just take her away from us?" asks Delibsi. It's Maria's scrunchie that she has wrapped around her finger.
For over a week, the image of Maria -- a small girl with pigtails, blond hair, light skin and blue-green eyes standing in front of a red wall -- was widely interpreted as an example of all the terrible things that can happen to a child. Ever since police discovered little Maria during a raid on the Roma community in the Greek town of Farsala, there has been speculation about what may have been done to this girl.
Police were actually looking for drugs and weapons, but then they caught sight of this girl who looks so different than the rest of the family -- and that alone sparked suspicions and fueled speculation: Maria could have been abducted or sold to a Roma family that kept the girl as an attraction, just as dancing bears were once led on chains through the towns of Europe. They could have forced her to beg or work for them, it was thought.
Fears Fed by Stereotypes
The medieval myth of the Gypsy who steals light-skinned children -- the subject of countless copperplate prints -- was suddenly revived in people's minds. Here was a small blond girl, "alone among Gypsies," as a Greek tabloid wrote. Maria's tale is also the story of the racism and discrimination that the Roma experience on a daily basis.
"When she came to us, she was perhaps four days old," says Delibsi. She can't recall the exact details anymore. In any case, the remains of the umbilical cord were still visible, she says, adding that a Bulgarian woman gave the infant to her mother because she could not provide for her.
Delibsi carefully picks up the playthings from the bed and stores them in the cupboard. The family lives in a small, low building with a tiled roof that has two rooms and a large bathroom. In the living room stands a kitchenette that is half obscured by a huge flat-screen TV. In one corner is a small table with icons -- a tiny altar with the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. Delibsi folds the colorful blankets that the family uses when they all sleep on the floor of the living room -- everyone except for Maria, that is, who slept in the little bed with her dolls, who she always gave something to drink before she fell asleep. "So they can also sleep well," as she used to say.
The big sister was visiting her parents when 10 police officers banged on the door early on the morning of Oct. 16 and then pulled Maria out of bed.
"This child is not yours; it's white," yelled one of the policemen. The little girl didn't cry. The police also took along the parents, and the three of them sat in the backseat of a squad car.
Truth Lost in Lies
Since then, the older sister has been living in the house and taking care of Nikos.
"I'd like to know how Maria is doing," she says, now that the little girl is all alone in Athens, where she is living with a children's aid organization. According to TV reports, she is doing well, "but they all lie," says Delibsi. The TV stations are now also illustrating the difficult search for Maria's family. "We are her family," says Delibsi. The Bulgarian woman gave the child to her parents, she insists, and Maria has been part of the family ever since: "We love her."
The family has collected money over the past few days from people throughout the local Roma community. Now, the brothers of Christos -- the man who, until recently, was still Maria's father -- are on their way to Bulgaria, where they hope to find the biological mother so she can exonerate the family. "She has to sign a document to confirm that we didn't steal Maria," says Delibsi.
Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, and Christos Salis, 39 -- the couple that passed off Maria as their daughter, have been in police custody since last week. The public prosecutor's office is investigating them on suspicion of abducting a minor and falsifying documents.
When police questioned them about Maria, they lied at first. But they eventually told the story of the Bulgarian woman, a migrant worker who placed the child in their care. Nevertheless, mistrust persisted. Dimopoulou, the mother, had a forged passport. To make matters worse, the couple have reportedly been collecting child benefits for a total of 14 officially registered children, six of which must have been born within a 10-month period, according to the information that they provided. They allegedly collected 2,800 ($3,850) a month this way.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
But is that enough in a country with such widespread social-benefit fraud to insinuate that they bought, abducted and used the child? Or that they are even part of a human trafficking ring?
Some TV reports have even speculated that the family wanted to raise Maria so they could sell her organs, and one story on organ trafficking included images of the Roma settlement. The principle of innocent until proven guilty -- which should also apply to Roma families -- was ignored by the TV reporters. Every day now, the Greek government orders Roma communities to be searched for weapons, drugs and blond children.
Of course, child trafficking exists in Greece, and since the borders to Romania and Bulgaria have been opened, the country has even become a key point of transit, says Daniel Esdras, head of the Athens office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A human-trafficking ring was busted on the Greek border just two years ago: At the time, police arrested five Bulgarians and nine Greeks; the gang reportedly sold at least 14 infants.
Furthermore, just last week, two couples were arrested for having allegedly sold children, including a newborn for 4,000 and a 3-month-old baby. Police are investigating them on suspicion of aiding and abetting the abduction of a minor.
For some time, it has been remarkably easy to register a new child in a family in Greece. All one has to do is make a statement under oath at a civil registry office and have it confirmed by two acquaintances. But that may soon change. The government wants to require fraternity and maternity tests for the parents of all officially registered children.
A Separate Community
Roughly 2,000 Roma live in Farsala, the town where Maria grew up, in the heart of a fertile region that has brought prosperity to the local Greek farmers. The people in Farsala say that there are no problems with the Roma: They note that they live apart in their own settlement, adding that some work in the city, while most of them have itinerant jobs selling carpets, ceramics or scrap metal. "They live differently than we do, have more children, eat different things and sleep on the floor," says a tavern owner. It doesn't sound as if he sees them as a threat.
Many of the Roma in Farsala live in containers like the ones used on ships, which the Greek government made available with the help of EU subsidies in 2004. It's primarily young people who live here. The area resembles a campground where a great deal of laundry is washed and a great deal of scrap metal is stored.
The families who have been here for a long time live in low buildings made of cement with tiled roofs and spacious terraces, which are regularly sprayed down with a garden hose.
'We Gypsies Love Our Children'
Across from Maria's home, Nikos Karakostas, 42, is sitting on a plastic chair. He's a gaunt man with a furrowed face. Above him hangs a laundry line with brightly colored romper suits. He's not sure exactly how many children he has, at least not offhand -- six or seven. He has to ask his wife. Six, she yells through the window. And two grandchildren! "We Gypsies love our children; we allow them to live," he says. As long as we can feed our children, everything is fine, says Karakostas.
But since the beginning of the economic crisis, his family has not been doing very well. At midday, he jams a glass of frappé -- Greek ice coffee -- between his windshield and his dashboard, and drives around in his old Mitsubishi van with its busted-off handbrake lever. He collects steel and iron that he sells at the scrap yard. Christos Salis also collected scrap metal with his blue pickup. Maria and the other children liked to sit on the truck bed. They used to earn around 40 a day, says Karakostas. Now it's only about 20.
Sometimes he takes the children along so they can lend a hand, but they would rather throw cotton balls at each other than collect copper. The plains surrounding Farsala are dotted with cotton fields. Fluffy balls hang from the plants like huge cotton swabs -- and cotton lines the roadsides like snow that never melts.
"Maria's family was a good family," says Karakostas. He says that the little girl had big problems with her eyes -- and that her parents took her all the way to Thessaloniki to see doctors. Everyone knew Maria in the settlement, as her blond hair made her something special. The fact that she was picked up and taken away, just like that, is not just a matter for the family, he says. "It affects us all," says Karakostas, "when the ballame, the whites, now believe again that we sell children." He doesn't see anything wrong with raising someone else's child.
And what about the mother's forged passport and the 14 children? Were Maria's ostensible parents criminals?
Of course, you shouldn't cheat, says Karakostas. On the other hand: Who doesn't? If the authorities had really checked, they would have immediately noticed that the two parents could not have had 14 children together, he argues.
We all knew about the little girl, says Nikos' brother Angelos, 34, the father of five children ages five to 18. He pulls out a photo album. In a plastic jacket is a picture of his daughter, who is also blond. "If she still lived here, they would take her away from me," he says, shaking his head -- just because she doesn't look like him or his wife. Maria was the child of a Bulgarian woman who was just traveling through the area, according to Nikos and Angelos Karakostas. The same story is told by the women who are sorting laundry in the evening sun on the tiled terrace of the little house where Maria lived.
The women are sitting on blankets with a number of babies between them. Three small children are smearing each other with halva, a sweet confection made with sesame seeds. These are Emanuela Delibsi's cousins, aunts and sisters-in-law. They are somehow all related to each other, but the exact nature of their kinship is rather complicated.
Neither Child Traffickers Nor Thieves
The road to Maria's biological mother leads to Bulgaria, to the small town of Nikolaevo, a 90-minute drive from Sofia. It ends on an unlit street where Sasha Ruseva lives. She says that little Maria is her daughter.
On Thursday evening, she and her husband are still being interviewed by the police. It's already dark when they return home. Ruseva is a petite, thin woman with dark skin. She looks like she is in her mid-fifties, although she's only 34. If one includes Maria, she has a total of 10 children. She is carrying one of them on her arm -- and it's also blond.
Ruseva doesn't want to talk to the press. She is afraid of her husband, who is hot-tempered and drinks too much, she says.
Neighbors have gathered in front of her home, and the mayor is also there; he knows her story. Someone says: "She should talk. We Roma don't steal children; we don't sell children."
Then she begins to tell how it happened: In 2008, she went to Greece to harvest oranges and gave birth to a girl there. She actually intended to name her Stanka, but since nobody at the hospital understood that, she called the baby Maria. She said she had no money to acquire papers for the child. One of the women helping with the harvest offered to take care of the child and promised: "You can pick her up her anytime." She never took any money for the girl, says Ruseva. She worked for another few days in Greece, and then she returned to Nikolaevo, she says.
Ruseva has seen pictures of Maria on TV. "I would take her back, but I'm so poor that I don't even have enough money to properly clothe my children," she says. Maria is pretty -- very pretty -- and she looks healthy, she says. Then she retreats into her house.
One day later, on Friday evening, a DNA test confirms Ruseva's story: The Bulgarian woman is Maria's biological mother. And the Greek Roma who have raised Maria are thus neither child traffickers nor thieves, but merely the two adults who have been Maria's father and mother since soon after her birth.
BY VESSELIN DIMITROV, MANFRED ERTEL, JULIA AMALIA HEYER AND JAN PUHL