Mohammed Gadir and son Wanis, 14, in front of a social service agency in Benghazi,… (Yusuf Buik / For The Times )
Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — The families have become close, sharing confidences and grief as their children, some now young adults, come to terms with a poisoned future — a lifetime of medications, anxiety and enduring stigma in a traditional Muslim society where their conditions remain cloaked in shame.
Some survivors have married other victims, with parental encouragement. No need to involve outsiders.
They gather regularly to socialize at a drab community center where a poster on the door bears color snapshots of children's inquisitive faces, looking like a preschool lineup. It is a roster of the dead.
Even as anger and denial have yielded to reluctant acceptance, many still yearn to know: What really happened to our children? Who was responsible?
These are the families of more than 400 youngsters, from infants to teenagers, who were infected in the late 1990s with HIV, the AIDS virus, at Benghazi's public pediatric hospital. At last count, 62 had died.
The children ranged in age from a few months to 14 years when they were infected during 1997 and '98. Most did not receive blood transfusions, according to doctors and families, but were injected with medications or intravenous fluids, usually for bronchial ailments and other non-life-threatening conditions.
In a case permeated by a dictator's intrigues and international outrage, Libyan prosecutors alleged that five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor deliberately infected the children as part of a nefarious conspiracy that turned caregivers into child-killers. European experts who studied the evidence cited less sinister reasons as the likely cause: poor hygiene and the reuse of syringes.
The six medical workers were convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad after what the West widely regarded as show trials. But a deal was ultimately struck with the European Union and the six were extradited to Bulgaria in 2007 and freed.
The disturbing episode in a country where HIV infection was virtually unknown remains one of the period's great medical mysteries, and a collective affront in this eastern Libyan city where mistrust of Moammar Kadafi has always been high.
Today, with Kadafi's regime ousted from the east, at least for now, there is hope that some kind of truth may finally emerge, even as freedom from Kadafi has brought a new peril: a shortage of crucial medications because of interrupted shipments from Europe.
"My son has the right to know what happened to him," said Mohammed Gadir, a former student in Riverside whose boy, Wanis, now 14, was among those infected. "I see Wanis taking his medications, struggling to be healthy, and I think: 'This would be easier to accept if it were something that happened naturally. An illness. God's will. But someone did this to my son.' "
Parents now voice a long-repressed belief that Kadafi's regime manipulated the tragedy, perhaps to cover up for negligence at the hospital or in anger over the conviction of a former Libyan intelligence operative in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Kadafi publicly linked the Lockerbie case and the Benghazi prosecutions, insisting that Libyan justice would handle the foreign medics just as Scotland treated the bombing suspects.
"From the beginning, everyone suspected that Kadafi had something to do with this," said Saad Ali, 45, whose son was infected. "But until now, we were afraid to say it."
Others, however, have never wavered in their belief that the medical workers were the culprits.
"I'm convinced they did it," said Saleh Omran, 43, who still spends time on his laptop looking for clues to his daughter's infection, poring over the voluminous record of witness statements, investigative reports and other documents.
The foreigners' purported motives were many: hatred of the Libyan people, profit-driven experimentation in search of an AIDS vaccine, collaboration in a diabolical plot hatched by the Mossad and the CIA, as Kadafi once postulated. Upon their release, the workers said they had been tortured into making "confessions" about concealed vials of tainted plasma, clandestine injections, secret payments and alcohol-fueled sex romps.
"I don't know who was behind it," Omran said, "but someone wanted to make money from our children's suffering."
Many of the parents became friends over the years, linked by a singular bond of hardship. They met socially and provided the children —almost evenly split between boys and girls — a chance to get to know one another in comfortable settings.
Omran's daughter, Fatma, now 22, is among those who have married other infected survivors, a move welcomed in a society where matrimony largely remains a decision reached by families, not individuals.