Mystery girl was happy among us, Greek Roma insist
Forty year-old Roma woman by the name Selini Sali or Eleftheria Dimolpoulou, 39 year-old Roma man by the name Christos Salis (R) and a girl found living with them in central Greece, are seen in a handout photo distributed by the Greek police and obtained by Reuters October 21, 2013. REUTERS PhotoStanding in front of their prefabricated homes, residents of the camp in central Greece where a white-skinned, blonde girl found living with Roma parents was removed last week are indignant.
"One day, the police just came and took the child. Why? We are not thieves or murderers," protests Haralambos Dimitriou, the head of the Farsala settlement.
Both in Greece and abroad, the pale face and green eyes of Maria, as the little girl is known, has ignited a media frenzy, raising fears of child trafficking and grabbing the attention of families of missing children.
But in the camp itself, where around 2,000 Roma have lived for generations, there is anger at the decision by authorities to pluck the girl from the only family she has ever known -- and entrust her to an Athens-based charity.
Dubbed the "blonde angel", Maria -- believed to be five or six based on dental checks -- was found during a police raid on October 16, one of many periodically conducted in Roma settlements around the country in search of illegal guns and drugs.
Her alleged parents, 39-year-old Christos Salis and his 40-year-old partner, Eleftheria Dimopoulou, claim the child was abandoned by a Bulgarian cotton picker who was unable to care for her.
At the small white and grey house where Maria lived, a nephew of the couple storms out to accuse journalists gathered in the gritty path outside of spreading lies about his family.
"The media have been saying that she had been locked up and living among garbage," explains a neighbour.
Salis and Dimopoulou, who had a second police identity card under the name Selini Salis, are believed to have another five children.
According to the police, the couple have registered a total of 14 children in four separate cities -- including three allegedly born within a five-month period -- to claim state benefits.
But neighbours and friends at the camp insist that they took good care of Maria, taking her on frequent visits to a doctor to address eyesight problems.
"This was a girl who played all the time, talked to everybody. How can they say that she's happier now?" wondered Vassilis Tzakis, a young Roma man.
"Everybody knew the child, the police knew she was here, she moved about the camp, went to the supermarket, even to the city of Larissa with her family to attend weddings," Dimitriou, the camp headman, told AFP.
Smile of the Child, an Athens-based charity which runs child shelters around the country, is now taking care of the youngster.
Greek police are investigating nearly a dozen cases of missing children from at least four countries including the US, Sweden, Poland and France where there is a possible resemblance with Maria.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said during a visit to Rome on Monday that investigators were using DNA samples to try to solve the case.
"And we are trying to do the utmost for this little girl to, you know, have a nice, comfortable, helpful life for the remaining part of this tragedy she is going through," Samaras said.
Smile of the Child has received more than 8,000 calls from around the world on the case since this weekend, its spokesman said.
"Some are calls to give information, and we forward to the police whatever we feel can be helpful to the case. Other calls are from people who want to express sympathy," said spokesman Panagiotis Pardalis.
"This case has highlighted the problem and the need to deal with it. There are (parents of missing children) who have been living in agony for years. We tend to forget these cases exist," he said.