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The questions remain unanswered

Vaiju Naravane

Several days after the arrest of a few French and Spanish peopleand two Chadians on charges of kidnapping 103 childrenfrom Chad, the mystery remains unresolved.

— PHOTO: AFP

OutrageD: Chadian women protest against trafficking in children on Wednesday in Abeche, Chad after some Europeans involved in the effort to take 103 children out of Chad were arrested.

Almost 10 days after 17 Europeans and two Chadians were arrested in Chad on charges of kidnapping 103 children, the affair remains mysterious with several unanswered questions.

It is a story of misplaced messianic zeal, of bungled, ill-planned actions that are likely to give adoption agencies in the West a bad name. Already there is intense anti-French feeling in Chad with women demonstrating loudly in the streets, calling f or the most severe punishment to be meted out to the “French child thieves.”

The public prosecutor in Abeche, the town where the Europeans are being held, has asked for a speedy transfer of the detainees to the capital Ndjamena — so afraid is he of mob violence if the mood suddenly turns ugly.

This is what happens when a few well-intentioned people frustrated by what they see as the failure of governments to act to protect the weak and the vulnerable — in this case children — decide to take the law into their own hands. The leaders of Zoe’s Ark, the humanitarian organisation that undertook the bungled covert commando operation, are convinced they were helping children who were war orphans by finding them safe and secure homes in France with childless couples who had an abundance of love to give. So how could things have gone so horribly wrong?

Despite all that has been written and said, several questions still need elucidating: Where do the children — the youngest is just one year old — come from? Are they orphans? Were they being brought to France for adoption? How much did the entire operation cost the association and the 258 families that each forked out €2,400 in order to get a child? Why were the children being covered in fake bandages to make it look like they were war wounded? And to what extent is the French state — some furious back-pedalling has been going on in Paris — implicated? Was the association duped by locals who helped its members find the so-called orphans?

The story began as a small news item on October 25 when seven members of a humanitarian organisation, L’Arche de Zoe (Zoe’s Ark), were detained by Chadian airport police in the town of Abeche as they were getting ready to airlift 103 children — claimed by the organisers to be orphans from Darfur — to France. According to the latest reports reaching the French capital, Chad’s Government has said that the three journalists who accompanied the commando operation and the Spanish crew of the chartered plane which was to have ferried the children to France will soon be released. But the six members of Zoe’s Ark which carried out the operation risk long prison sentences with hard labour.

On April 28, a communiqué published by Zoe’s Ark on its website declared that the humanitarian organisation, created in the wake of the 2004 tsunami by members of the French fire brigade, wished “to save 10,000 children from Darfur.”

In the communiqué, the association called for host families “ready to welcome orphans of less than five years of age.” The association’s president, Eric Breteau, now in jail in Chad, held several meetings with prospective families in Paris and the provinces during which he did not dissimulate the risks involved — both financial and physical — in the operation.

Families were led to believe that the welcome given to the children could one day lead to adoption. Several hundred childless couples who have already put in adoption requests did not hesitate to send in their cheques.

Around the same time, France’s International Adoption Authority (ACAI) which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began receiving calls about the association’s activities and in a first communiqué published on May 25, the ACAI issued a first warning against Zoe’s Ark. A second warning advising people to keep clear of the association was published on June 14 and on July 9 the ACAI decided to ask the police to open an official enquiry into the association’s activities.

Warnings issued

On two occasions, Mr. Breteau was personally warned by the authorities to abandon his plans. But, despite these warnings, the six-member Zoe’s Ark team, going under the name of Children Rescue, flew out to Chad on September 9 to carry out the scheme, one that went horribly wrong.

The 103 children are for the most part “Chadian with Chadian parents” and not from Darfur, a French Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. But Mr. Berteau maintains that the children are “war refugees from Sudan.” “Our role was to serve as an air bridge for them between Sudan and France and we wished to use the airport closest to the Sudanese frontier,” he says.

Nor, it now appears, are they orphans. “From what we could gather most of these children have at least one living parent. We must now verify that in their villages,” said Annette Rehrl of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Zoe’s Ark stubbornly maintains it had quite simply omitted to obtain an evacuation permit from the Chadian authorities for the children. “The Chadians recognise the fact that these children are in danger but they do not see the urgent need to evacuate them,” it said.

As to whether the children were to be put up for adoption, Zoe’s Ark says it only wanted to give them safe homes. However, in the application form calling for host families, the association says: “At the end of the procedure when the child’s situation has been regularised, those families wishing to do so can begin adoption proceedings.”

The cost of the operation has been estimated at €550,000. Zoe’s Ark also states that it received material aid from the French army in Chad and from the UNHCR.

The French state has attempted to distance itself from this operation with the Junior Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Rama Yade, declaring that “French authorities did everything in their power” to stop the association from going ahead with the scheme.

But the Association continues to maintain it received logistical help from the French army. Independent investigations carried out by French newspapers revealed that members of Zoe’s Ark used French Air Force planes on several occasions. Chad’s border with strife-wracked Darfur is porous. Villages lie on an unmarked desert frontier. Chad’s President Idriss Deby has led military campaigns in person against Chadian rebels with whom he has just signed his latest peace pact, and his own poverty-stricken country is home to some 300,000 Darfur refugees and internally displaced Chadians.

Bad time for French Government

The imbroglio comes at a particularly delicate and inopportune moment for the French Government. For months now, the French have been urging the deployment before the end of this year of a European force (Eufor) in eastern Chad in zones affected by the conflict in Darfur. The bad blood cause by the Zoe’s Ark scandal will definitely affect France’s credibility and its capacity to intervene both diplomatically and militarily in this sensitive region of the world.

It is an area where France, because of the military pact it has with Chad and because of its preponderant and continuous presence in the region, is expected to play a central role in the deployment of the 3,000-strong European force. And although both Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and President Nicolas Sarkozy have tried to obtain assurances from President Deby that this deployment will not be affected by these developments, French motives will now be looked at with greater suspicion especially since it has been revealed that the French army whether out of negligence or ignorance, gave logistical support to Zoe’s Ark on more than one occasion.

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