After three weeks of complete silence followed by death claims on two separate Arabic web sites, few in Italy dared hope the two abducted aid workers would resurface from their captivity unharmed and smiling.
By Irene Peroni
BBC News Online
But nobody had predicted that after all the candlelit vigils, silent marches and displays of national unity before their release, the women would stir up such a political storm right after their return home.
The aid workers have been accused of being "ungrateful"
On their first day of freedom, instead of thanking Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for securing their release Simona Pari and Simona Torretta urged the government to withdraw its troops from Iraq.
There are reports that a $1m ransom was paid for their release, although the government has officially denied this.
From the very start, the former hostages said they wished to carry on their aid work in Baghdad and expressed gratitude to the Arab countries, Iraq's freedom fighters and the Muslim world for working towards their liberation.
They said they once had a knife held to their throat, and had lived in constant fear of being killed "until the moment we stepped on the airplane".
But despite their ordeal, they insisted their perception of Iraq as an occupied country struggling for freedom remained unchanged.
"Guerrilla warfare is legitimate, but I am against the kidnapping of civilians," Simona Torretta, who speaks Arabic and was already based in Iraq before Saddam Hussain was ousted, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
"You have to distinguish between terrorism and resistance - I said it before and I repeat it today," she added.
Ms Torretta went on to describe Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's administration as "a puppet government in the hands of the Americans".
For more than 20 days, papers of all political colours portrayed the two volunteers as national examples of selflessness and compassion.
But after speaking their minds, the "daisies of peace", as they had been dubbed, became the object of fierce criticism by some politicians and part of the press.
They were described as cold, patronizing and "ungrateful" towards the government, and were rebuked for failing to mention the other victims of kidnapping.
The front page of the right-wing daily newspaper Libero carried the headline "The lies of the Simonas".
Giuliano Ferrara, editor of daily Il Foglio and long-time ally of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, suggested the women should return the sum paid by the government for their release by collecting it from among Italy's "valiant pacifists".
The president of the north-eastern Veneto region, Giancarlo Galan, said he was "astonished and offended" by the "fanaticism" of the two.
Northern League MP Alessandro Ce meanwhile wondered how they were really feeling. "It is still unclear whether they were comfortable in captivity or were indeed happy to have been freed," he said.
Political truce over
There had been great anticipation among the general public in Italy to hear the two aid workers talk about their kidnapping.
Many were expecting tearful accounts of abuse, loneliness and anguish.
The kaftans worn by the two women were a present from the abductors
Others hoped there would be more transparency than after the release of three Italian contractors working for an American security company in Iraq in June this year.
Umberto Cupertino, Maurizio Agliana and Salvatore Stefio have never told their side of the story, which leaves several questions open as to what exactly they were doing in Iraq and the conditions and circumstances of their release.
Ms Pari and Ms Torretta eventually thanked the government and explained they were not aware of the beheadings of the two Americans and of British engineer Ken Bigley's plight until after their first statements.
But the much-praised collaboration between government and opposition to free the women is definitely over, and the country is once again split between those who support the Italian presence in Iraq and those who think it is time to bring the troops back home.