It seemed like the ending of a World Cup Championship where the Bulgarian boys had scored against Germany. National euphoria surrounded the five women and two men as they descended from a French aircraft at Sofia Airport. Even the hard-bitten wept as the longsuffering detainees fell into the arms of their loved ones.
It was the hottest day of the year but Bulgaria's establishment, bedecked in dark suits, lined the scorched tarmac, perhaps eager to bask in the plaudits and the reflected glory.
The country seemed to forget its problems. Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, quick to capitalise on what he hoped would be a renewed mood of optimism, said the nation had “regained its selfconfidence”. Bulgaria dominated the world's front pages and, for once, for reasons unconnected to crime, corruption, baby smuggling, poverty or other ills.
The saga began eight years ago when Bulgarian nurses Christiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka and Snezhana Dimitrova, Dr Zdravko Georgiev and Palestinian Dr Ashraf Al-Hajuj were accused of deliberately infecting 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus. Six years later, Dr Georgiev was acquitted but the rest were pronounced guilty and sentenced to death. The judgment, relying on confessions extracted under torture, met with international condemnation. Yet all Libyan law courts upheld the death penalty verdict and rejected appeals.
The sentences were not carried out. Libyan President Muammar Al-Qadhafi commuted them to life imprisonment and honoured a bilateral agreement with Bulgaria stipulating that nationals of one state, convicted of crimes in the other, can serve sentences at home. So it was that the nurses returned to a triumphant reception in Sofia. Minutes after they set foot on home soil, President Georgi Parvanov granted them a full pardon.
The story captured the world's imagination. A novel based on the events has already been published. Plans were unveiled for a movie about the nurses' story. And what better ending for such a picture than the nurses' emotional and cathartic return? This is just where a largescale government, political and corporate PR campaign took over.
Most of the media attention – and a lucrative arms deal – went to France. The nurses were released during French first lady Cécilia Sarkozy's visit to Libya. The next day, the newly elected French president visited Tripoli, ostensibly to finalise an arrangement for the construction of a nuclear-powered desalination plant. A week later, however, it emerged that Libya was to acquire Milan anti-tank missiles and an advanced communications system from France.
Did the Bulgarian nurses figure in a quid pro quo deal with Libya? Until its recent decision to abandon a nuclear programme, the North African regime had been a pariah state and viewed as an international terrorist sponsor.
French Defence Minister Hervé Morin rejected such speculation, pointing out that negotiations with Libya had been conducted over two or three years and concluded in February, before Sarkozy's presidency. Yet Saif Al-Islam, Al-Qadhafi's son, told Le Monde and Newsweek that a deal had been struck involving the nurses, French arms and the possible extradition from Britain of Abdel Al-Megrahi, convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Bulgarian President Parvanov was the uncontested star in the media circus. As soon as Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin began reading the pardon at the nurses' first press conference, he made a surprise appearance. Traditionally, Bulgarian presidents delegate the act of pardon to the vice president. Parvanov had previously conformed to this protocol. But, in this case, he usurped Vice President Angel Marin's office. Intentionally or not, the timing of this dramatic gesture quelled discussion of the fact that he had lied about his past as a Communist-era State Security informer.
On the very same day, state agencies and corporations began showering the nurses with presents. Hotels and travel agencies offered their services to help them recover from the nightmare of Libyan jails. Defence Minister Veselin Bliznakov put the Military Medical Academy at their disposal for tests and the MoD sanatoriums for their relaxation – at the expense of the Council of Ministers. But the nurses had already been offered to stay in the Boyana government residence.
Some medical centres offered employment to the nurses after Health Minister Radoslav Gaydarski confirmed that they had not lost their professional licences as a result of the prolonged period of non-practice.
Neither the minister nor the prospective employers offered to help the nurses catch up with developments in medicine during the past eight years. But Boyko Borisov, Sofia's mayor and unofficial leader of Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) promised computer courses for the nurses and Bulgarian language classes for the Palestinian doctor.
The Bulgarian Physicians' Union confined itself to opening bank accounts for the nurses where people could send donations. Private corporations did much more – and did so conspicuously. Mobile operator M-Tel presented each of the nurses with a luxury flat. Todor Batkov, the owner of the Standart daily, gave each a bank account with 10,000 leva. The newspaper, along with television channel bTV and Darik Radio, had organised the “You Are Not Alone” ribbon campaign for the nurses' release. The ribbon doubled as an advertising logo, appearing on dairy products and planes belonging to a Bulgarian air carrier.
The Council of Ministers also gave each medical worker 10,000 leva as part of a one-off donation to help them get settled. Stanishev and Kalfin were careful to point out that this was not unprecedented. Similar aid was given to the relatives of the 17 victims of the tragic accident near Byala in December last year.
But, as so often, financial issues sullied the human drama. Snezhana Dimitrova's son, Ivaylo Nikolchevski, was dissatisfied with the 10,000 leva offer. He said that the state should take the initiative and not wait to be solicited before compensating the nurses. According to European practice, victims of wrongful imprisonment are awarded between 35 and 45 euros for each day's imprisonment. Taking 40 euros as the average amount, this means that the state owed the nurses and Al-Hajuj 117,000 euros each for their eight years in jail.
Nothing came of this demand, which elicited few comments from the media. However, Bulgaria waived the nearly $56.6 million owed by Libya and donated it to the Benghazi International Fund for the treatment of HIV-infected children and to the modernisation of medical facilities.
The big losers from all this media attention could be the nurses themselves. Financial compensation and public assistance have roused resentment in some Bulgarians – not least because they coincided with a 10 percent rise in food prices and the possible introduction of a flat income tax.
Significantly, no Bulgarian media took up any serious investigation of where the money to release the nurses had come from. All Bulgarian officials, including Parvanov – hailed as the mastermind of the operation and the chief saviour of the nurses – asserted that Bulgaria had not contributed a penny to ensure the nurses' release. Some questions were asked, but they were brushed off - and the hacks didn't pursue the matter. What provokes a tremendous scandal in France fails to raise a murmur in Bulgaria...
This is strangely reminiscent of the dark days of Communist Durzhavna sigurnost, or State Security, informers, when Sofia residents learned about what was happening in the centre of their city from BBC World Service broadcasts. Perhaps the BBC should do it again? It would become immensely popular in Bulgaria if it supplied concrete answers about the money, but perhaps this time around it should inform the police before starting to ask questions.