BERLIN — When Greek police raided the gypsy camp 170 miles north of Athens last week, they were searching for drugs and weapons.
But they found something very unexpected, though long feared: a little blonde, blue-eyed girl.
The little girl, thought to be four, looked nothing like her "parents," raising suspicions among police. The DNA tests they ordered soon showed there was no genetic connection.
The result is both an international scramble by the parents of children who have vanished to see if the girl could be their lost child, and the apparent re-enforcement of a long held European fear: Gypsies steal little blond children.
As Costas Giannopoulos, the head of a charity called Smile of the Child that is now housing the child, and that is helping police find the real parents, told the British Observer newspaper: "This case has reinforced our suspicions of Roma involvement in child trafficking. We have discovered how easy it is for anyone to register children as their own... Blond, blue-eyed children are clearly being targeted."
It's a quote that many Europeans grew up hearing as a boogeyman-esque warning, but which had long been dismissed as baseless myth, the stuff of fairy tales and campfire stories.
By the weekend, the charity said they had at least "ten promising leads" to the real parents of the child, having been besieged with photos and stories of children who have gone missing around the world. In all, the charity has fielded more than 10,000 calls and emails, and have photos and stories in 10 cases which they say could lead to finding the parents of the girl.
The parents from the camp have been arrested and are expected to be charged with child abduction today in Greece.
Police and press reports have noted that when questioned during the raid about the children the 40-year-old woman and 39-year-old man who said they were parents gave a wide range of possible explanations for why they had the child with them. They found her in a blanket. The girl has a Canadian father.
But the woman was found to have two identities. Police discovered that she had registered giving birth to six of the 14 children in the camp during the same year in three different parts of Greece.
The parents deny the charges of child smuggling.
The little girl, who police say speaks primarily in the Roma dialect, is said to be confused by the changes in her life. She is said to answer to the name "Marie."