By Juliette Terzieff
Sunday, January 2, 2005
Anna Zarkova is an investigative journalist who was attacked with acid six years ago for covering organized crime, including forced prostitution and trafficking networks in Bulgaria. She continues to press for reforms and equal rights for women.
SOFIA, Bulgaria (WOMENSENEWS)--For Anna Zarkova, an investigative journalist who is used to digging deep into her reporting, telling the story of the acid attack on her six years ago isn't easy.
"Even now, it's difficult to talk about it," the normally spunky 46-year-old whispers. "I'd received threats on the phone, but never in my worst nightmares did I ever really believe, or even imagine, the kind of pain that would be inflicted on me and my family."
"I want to forget," she says, gently rubbing her face, almost scar free after six surgeries, "but that's not easy either."
Despite her wish to put the attack behind her, Zarkova has spent the last six years urging her countrywomen and fellow journalists to keep pressing for official accountability on crime, equal rights for women and adherence to democratic norms in a country that still struggles with its transition from communism begun 13 years ago. She continues with her regular duties as chief crime reporter at the daily newspaper Trud, covering the organized crime networks including forced prostitution and trafficking.
Zarkova regularly speaks at conventions, universities and in the media about the importance of standing up against criminal activity. She says her message is especially directed towards women who have fallen increasingly victim to domestic violence, forced prostitution and trafficking and have an unemployment rate double that of Bulgarian men.
After Bulgaria's emergence from under the shadow of the dissolved Soviet Union in 1991, Zarkova--previously a business and fashion writer-- began focusing on the seedier side of Bulgaria's ongoing transformation to a market economy. From police violence and official corruption to organized crime and trafficking, Zarkova's pen struck at the hearts of thenation, urging its citizens to fight for reforms and accountability. With shady politicians and even shadier businessmen infiltrating Bulgaria's economy in an effort to take advantage during the first turbulent years of transition, average Bulgarians--with unemployment rising as high as 30 percent in the mid-1990s, rampant inflation and diminished purchasing power--lost faith in the institutions that in an ideal democracy are designed to serve the people.
Heroes were in short supply and Zarkova, as Trud's chief crime reporter, was on a personal mission to change that. Her dogged reporting on organized crime outfits helped spur public pressure on authorities to crack down on Bulgaria's home-grown criminal groups. Throughout the 1990s, Zarkova's reporting led to the dismissal of more than a dozen police officers for brutality and extortion, as well as other corruption charges.
"She is an emotional, caring person who lives her job," says fellow journalist Tsvetan Gemishev. "Every story demonstrates her personal commitment to the issues at hand, to getting it as 'right' as possible, and that is what makes her so popular with readers. She earned readers' trust and their admiration."
Those her felt the power of her work struck back, however. While waiting at the bus stop to go to work in May 1998, a man darted out of the early morning crowd and tossed sulphuric acid at Zarkova.
"I just remember screaming and screaming from the pain," she recalls of the moments after the attack.
Zarkova was rushed to a local emergency room where doctors predicted that she would likely spend the rest of her life severely scarred and blind in one eye.
Front page headlines and thousands of letters and phone calls of support did little to assuage Zarkova's pain. After trips abroad for medical treatment, she returned to work on the condition that she be transferred to the culture section.
"Bulgaria cried for her, with her and for ourselves," says Sofia-based social worker Elena Petrova. "The attack on Zarkova was the ultimate symbol of everything that was going wrong."
Authorities arrested two men for involvement in the attack. Both were eventually released after a convoluted investigation and court proceeding, during which a purported witness was eventually charged as being the perpetrator and then released after other witnesses recanted or changed their testimonies. The father of one of the men arrested had been a police officer until Zarkova's investigation of his corrupt actions led to his dismissal.
"Prosecutors told me there was no point in pursuing the case and after ten years of watching the courts, I knew the result would be hard to change," she explains of her reasons for giving up the case.
The former police officer's son, Petyo Petkov, was subsequently arrested and charged for a similar attack that resulted in the death of the victim. Despite the testimony of three witnesses, he was acquitted.
Watching injustice pile up around her, Zarkova's intrinsic need to fight regained its hold, and she returned to criminal reporting four years ago.
"It wasn't easy getting out of the mindset of being handicapped, half blind, scarred and inept, but I am a bit stubborn," Zarkova says. "Now I find I have no time to be afraid; I just have too much work to do."
Zarkova's return to work, say her many admirers, would have been enough. Her return to investigating Bulgaria's criminal and quasi-official underworld, they say, is pure inspiration.
"Not many people could overcome something like this and regain their former position," says Gemishev. "It's a kind of heroism to have such a strong determination to survive. I honestly can't say I think I would have that same courage."
Zarkova has used the attack against her as fuel in her public campaign to urge Bulgarian women to fight against organized crime, especially the prostitution and trafficking rings she has continued to investigate. The Balkan country is a transit, source and destination country for trafficked women and children.
"The most profitable market for criminal groups now is drugs, but the most widespread are human trafficking and the flesh trade," she says. "All are terrible; all three target those most disassociated from society at large, the most vulnerable . . . Women and children. Those are the people who need our help the most."
Zarkova has written several long feature pieces on these issues, including coverage of Vanko 1, the rapper who was arrested and convicted last year in Bulgaria's most public trial to date on forced prostitution. Vanko 1 was sentenced to 12 years in jail and a $75,000 fine, Bulgaria's first conviction of a human trafficker.
"Some might call continuing to do this job madness, and maybe it is," Zarkova says. "But standing up for the truth is also a duty, and I urge all Bulgarians to never give up on the truth."
With Bulgaria bidding to enter the European Union in 2007, criminal reporting has taken on a new edge in the country.
"The need for honest reporting is more acute than ever," says Zarkova. "And, at the same time, the hope for the future hasn't looked this bright in quite some time."
Her determination has made her an icon to female journalists and women in general. "We simply don't have many heroes here," says Maria Georgieva, a Sofia university journalism student. "That one, lone woman would dare to stand up, and continue to stand after something so horrible happened, gives us all hope, pushes us forward."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, New York who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia.