SOFIA // Bulgaria's Aids case nurses met for a modest church mass today to mark the first anniversary of their release from eight years in Libyan prisons. Three of the five nurses and Palestinian-born doctor, Ashraf al-Hajuj, gathered in the Saint Sofia church in Sofia where an Orthodox priest held a mass for their future health and happiness. The six medical workers were twice sentenced to death in Libya for allegedly injecting 438 children with Aids-infected blood. They have always maintained their innocence, which was also backed by testimony from international health experts.
The case sparked a worldwide outcry and Libya's top legal body agreed to commute their death sentences to life imprisonment. Frantic last-minute negotiations led by the former wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Cecilia, and European external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, secured their transfer home on July 24 2007. Shortly after stepping down from the plane, the nurses and the doctor were then pardoned by the Bulgarian President Georgy Parvanov.
"I have enjoyed freedom for a year now but I hope that happier days are ahead," said nurse Nasya Nenova, who has just completed her first year of physiotherapy studies in Sofia. But Valya Chervenyashka, who was forced to return to her job as a hospital nurse in the small northwestern town of Byala Slatina to make ends meet, voiced regret that "everybody abdicated" from the pledges given to them a year ago.
"We are alone now," she said ? a reference to the "You are not alone" campaign that the Bulgarian media and the government launched to raise international awareness of their plight. "We are still waiting for them (the government) to fulfil what they promised on our return," Ms Valya said, citing pledges of help with health insurance and pension payments. The medics have long pressed to meet prime minister Sergey Stanishev to discuss their problems but have not received an answer so far.
Rosen Markov, a Bulgarian man who had once made the medics' release his personal cause, staged a solitary protest in front of the government buildings today. He placed six empty chairs in front of the building, the small signs attached to their backs reading: "We are waiting." A private company had donated apartments to the medics but they still lack running water and electricity, the nurses said.