SOFIA - The Bulgarian Roma mother of Maria, a young blonde girl whose fate made headlines around the world when she was found in a Greek Roma camp, tearfully denied Sunday that she had sold her daughter.
"I have not sold her! I have not... I gave her, I made a mistake. But I haven't taken any money," Ms Sasha Ruseva told private television station TV7 in her first public appearance since DNA tests proved on Friday that she was Maria's biological mother.
"I want Maria back! I am her mother, how could I not want her. I do not care what they say. I want Maria back with me," she pleaded.
The four-year-old girl, with her blonde hair and green eyes, was wrongfully thought to be a Western European child abducted by a Roma couple when she was found this month living near the Greek town of Farsala, and became a poster child for dozens of parents with missing children.
Greek and Bulgarian police however tracked down her real parents to a Roma ghetto in the central Bulgarian town of Nikolaevo on Thursday and are now investigating the mother for allegedly selling the child in Greece in 2009.
Ms Ruseva, 35, recounted her desperately poor life with her mentally-ill husand and nine other children, but said she had never forced them to beg, and voiced her fear at the possibility she could be thrown in jail.
Maria is currently in the care of Athens-based charity Smile of the Child, which said the girl was made to dance and beg by her Greek "family", who remain in detention for allegedly abducting her.
Their lawyer Marietta Palavra said Saturday the couple were planning to appeal their detention and also wanted the child back "as they are the ones who have raised her and they love her" even if they were not her biological parents.
"I gave birth to her in Lamia (in Greece). I raised her until she was seven months old. Then I had to return to Bulgaria to take care of my other children when my eldest daughter, who was caring for them, got married," Ms Ruseva said on Sunday.
She said she could not bring the baby back with her as she did not have any documents.
"A young woman came to me and said: 'I do not have children. Give her to me. I'll take care of her just as you would. Come back to Greece to take her when you can'," Ms Ruseva recalled.
"But I gave birth to two more children here and I could not go back. I did not have the money." She said she had tried to call the woman but the phone was switched off.
Bulgarian authorities have remained silent on the case although a regional social services chief said they were considering putting Maria into foster care.
Ms Ruseva and her husband Atanas, 38 - who was sitting silently in the studio with tears rolling down his face - have another nine children, five of whom are also fair-skinned and blonde in contrast to their parents' dark complexions and brownish-black hair.
The family lives in a single room of the ramshackle house of Atanas' brother and their daily menu consists of bread and potatoes, Ms Ruseva said, adding that she had never been contacted by social workers.
"If I had sold Maria, we would have a house, beds, blankets... and we don't even have clothes to wear," said Ms Ruseva, whose haggard face makes her look much older than her age.
She said the family scraped through on the monthly children's allowances that were "sometimes 200, sometimes 300 leva" (S$174 to S$261).
"But I never left my children hungry. Nobody, nobody has ever come to ask us how we manage," Ms Ruseva said.
Asked what her favourite meal was her 11-year-old daughter Fanka, who was in the studio along with her parents and two other siblings, answered: "Beans" The mother said she was "like crazy" ever since she saw a video showing Maria dancing for a crowd for money.
"We may be poor but none of my children was made to beg," she fumed.
"I am not a criminal," Ms Ruseva pleaded, saying that she was now "scared" by the possibility of going to jail.
If found guilty of selling her daughter, she risks a prison term of up to six years.