Before a hit man threw sulfuric acid in her face, Anna Zarkova was the editor of the crime news department at Trud, a daily newspaper in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her beat centered on drug trafficking, police violence, the local mafia and official corruption. Her book "The Great Murders of Bulgaria," an investigation of the killings of mob bosses and the assassination of a prime minister, earned her Bulgaria's top journalism awards. But her exposÚs also brought death threats against her and her two children.
In May, as she waited at a bus stop in Sofia, an attacker darted out of the shadows and threw acid at her, causing extensive burns on her face and arms and blinding her left eye. In October, Zarkova, 40, accompanied by her husband, a physician who helped care for her after the attack, arrived in the United States to collect more accolades for her courage. These came from the International Women's Media Foundation and the International Center for Journalists.
AJR contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi submitted the following questions June 29 to Zarkova while she was in a hospital in Bulgaria. The Committee to Protect Journalists assisted with translation.
Q: Did you ever feel that you were in any serious danger before the acid incident?
A:Yes, my family and I were constantly threatened starting in 1996, when I wrote about the corruption of a prosecutor... [One phone threat] came right after I published the article. The same voice kept informing me of the whereabouts of my [8-year-old] daughter. At one point the voice said: "Your daughter is in [a park in Sofia], but she may not return home today." I was absolutely horrified that day. The other serious phone threat came after I started investigating money laundering by the staff of a restaurant chain. Someone said: "You will be unable to recognize your face." This happened in early March 1998, shortly before the incident with the acid.
Q: What was the driving force behind your reporting?
A: I could not remain passive and watch how so many innocent people were attacked by criminals. And most important, I felt that I should not keep silent on the corruption among prosecutors and in the courts. I really believed that my writing could help expose criminals. I wanted to feel I was contributing and that I was useful to the public with my writing.
Q: Now, after suffering so much, would you continue on this path? What advice would you give to journalists who are at risk emotionally and physically?
A: After the accident, I asked the Trud editor in chief, Tosho Toshev, to approve my transfer to the "Culture" section of the paper, and he agreed. But then, after the initial shock was gone, I became more and more convinced that I should go back to my section. I know how to investigate and write on crime, and I have restored my appetite for reporting on crime... I will continue with my work; I do not feel any fear for myself now, but my biggest concern is the safety of my children....
I have no formula to offer to those reporters who deal with crime. I always tell them to be very cautious, but there is nothing more I can tell them... I will advise reporters to continue with their writing as long as they believe they contribute to fighting corruption and crime in the country.
Q:What about the medical treatment for your injuries?
A: At first the pain was unbearable. For about five days, it felt like my head was a ball of fire. It is better now, however. All the painful medical procedures have to continue. My husband agreed to do the peeling of the damaged skin, which has to be done daily. He peels about 2 millimeters of old skin. It is extremely painful, and doctors say they cannot give me full nor even local anesthesia. I feel close to collapsing every time they peel the skin. At the same time, the skin underneath is healing, and when it heals it shrinks. It is painful, but the problem is that when it shrinks, it pulls on the lower eyelid, and the eye cannot close and gets very dry. That is why doctors give me eye drops all the time, and they are also extremely painful.
During her recent stay in the United States, Zarkova visited Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, where doctors told her she would be permanently blind in her left eye. The medical center is covering all her medical expenses while she is there. Ricchiardi again relayed questions to her in early November. Zarkova told her she plans to go back to work in Sofia as soon as she can.
"The mafia has already deprived me of my eye; I will not give them the pleasure of pushing me out of journalism," she says. Zarkova's message to journalists in dire situations everywhere: "Stick together, do the job and be brave."