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How Not to Help Africans

Posted on Nov 26, 2007
Protest in Chad
AP photo / Karel Prinsloo

Local reaction to international action:  Chadians shout anti-French slogans in N’Djamona after news of French charity group L’Arche de Zoé‘s failed “refugee” mission broke.

By Gbemisola Olujobi

The French charity group L’Arche de Zoé (Zoë‘s Ark) took 103 Chadian children from their homes with promises of sweets and a trip to the city of Abeche. But the group actually planned to fly the children to France on a 220-seater plane from Abeche airport in Eastern Chad, passing them off as “Sudanese orphans from Darfur” who needed urgent medical care and foster homes. The fiasco sheds new light on the activities of Western “angels of mercy” in Africa.

What was Zoë‘s Ark up to in Chad? On Oct. 25, the group was stopped while on the way to Abeche airport (Chad) to put 103 “Sudanese orphans” on a flight to France. The children were swathed in bloody bandages and IV drips. Officials of Zoë‘s Ark, the charity group that arranged the airlift, said the children were sick and destitute orphans from Sudan’s conflict-ridden region of Darfur who needed urgent medical attention. They said the children would be placed temporarily with French families after receiving medical treatment.

But something seemed out of place, and Chadian security insisted on checking out these children. They found that their wounds and illnesses were fake. The bandages had been smeared with dark liquid to make them look bloody, and the IV drips were unconnected. On top of it, the children said they were not from Darfur but were in fact Chadians and that no one had told them they were going to France. They had been picked up from their villages by “humanitarians” who gave them sweets and promised them an educational trip to Abeche.

Six workers of Zoë‘s Ark who are French nationals are presently in custody in Chad in the case. Seven Spanish air crew, three French journalists and a Belgian pilot who were arrested with the Zoë workers have been released by Chadian authorities because they could not be linked to the alleged fraud and abductions.

Every time I think of the debacle, my mind goes back to the expeditions of the Portuguese prince and navigator Infante Henrique to what was then known as “the land of the negroes.” In 1444, one of these expeditions, captained by Lancarote de Freitas, returned home with a cargo of 235 captives seized in a raid on the West African coast. The captives were taken “for division and dispersal” to Lagos in the Algarve. Portuguese captains soon discovered that there were many Portuguese and Spanish purchasers who wished to acquire an African servant or laborer. Of course, they went back for more Negroes. The rest has become history.

According to Robin Blackburn in “The Making of the New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern,” the Portuguese traders gave a “religious gloss” to their hideous venture and presented it as part of the objective of “winning souls for Christ.” They believed they were doing God’s work by “rescuing Africans from savagery and converting them to Christianity.” Henrique sought and obtained papal blessing for these activities. A series of papal bulls conferred on Henrique the task of “spreading the faith on the African coast.” He was appointed Commander of the Order of Christ and his expeditions were accepted as a Crusade. Another papal bull declared that the “infidels” could be taken captive and that these captives could be purchased “so long as arrangements were made to win them for Christ.” The whole world now knows what this purported conversion of Negroes to Christianity was all about.

Now, why does my mind insist on working this way? The more I think of these children being lured away from their homes with sweets and the prospect of an excursion to Abeche, only to be found swathed in bandages and connected to fake IV drips on their way to France, the more I think of that unfortunate cargo of captives in 1444.

Halimi, a Chadian widow whose three children were among the purported “Sudanese orphans,” gives a disturbing account of how Zoë‘s Ark came by the children. “Six people came to the village, including four French. Two of them were women. They told us ‘we are taking your children to Abeche to go to school. We will bring them back in one week.’ ”

Thirteen children were taken from Halimi’s village in the Tine district in this fraudulent manner. She told reporters that she spent six days traveling to Abeche after she heard on the radio about the attempted airlift of the children.

Despite condemnation by UNICEF, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross and a host of other organizations that work with children, the leaders of Zoë‘s Ark insist they were rescuing the African children from the risk of death and suffering and that they intended to place these “orphans from Darfur” with European families for foster care. Now, recall Henrique’s crusade and the Africans who were “rescued from savagery and converted to Christianity” by being sold into slavery. Am I losing my mind over nothing?

Zoë‘s Ark insists it had the right to carry out this operation under international law. What international law allows sucklings to be plucked from their mothers’ breasts for no clear reason? Most of the children are between 3 and 5 years old. At least one of them is a 1-year-old. And according to an indignant Annette Rehl of UNHCR, “the children were not orphans and they were not sitting alone in the desert in Chad. They were living with their families in communities.” Hello, Zoë‘s Ark!

UNICEF head Ann Veneman denounced the actions of the group. “It is simply unacceptable to see children taken out of their home countries without complying with national and international laws. Our position is that this is not consistent with international norms or practices or laws.”

U.N. officials also contradict the “war orphans” description of the children given by Zoë‘s Ark. They say these children were not sick and destitute orphans from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region but Chadian children who came from families with at least one parent living.

Even more worrisome is the fact that Zoë‘s Ark had told some families in Europe that it would be evacuating orphans from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region for them to foster. These families said they had paid up to 2,000 euros or more as a “donation” to Zoë‘s Ark. In fact, some couples in France reportedly paid as much as $8,400 to the Zoë‘s Ark parent organization, Children’s Rescue, to take Darfur orphans into their homes.

Am I still the only one wondering how the slave trade started? Apparently not. According to Chadian opposition politician Ngarlejy Yorongar, “the slavers of yesterday are modernizing their methods. ... Today, Europeans pass themselves off as dubious humanitarians, saying ‘we’ve come to save your children from certain death’ and hup, [the children] are taken away.”

And if you think the slavery angle is alarmist, try Chadian President Idriss Déby’s take on the affair. “Was it to sell [the children] to pedophiles? Or take their organs to resell them?” he asks.

Chadian Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor says: “They [Zoë‘s Ark] attempted to airlift the children, but for what purpose? If it was to medically treat them, they should not have hidden their agenda. If they meant to offer the children up for adoption, there would be no reason to hide that either. There are hidden intentions behind this.”

And according to an N’Djamena resident, who gave his name as Abderamane in an interview with Reuters, “we caught them red-handed. These are thieves trying to steal our children to send them to France.”

Said another N’Djamena resident, Abdoulaye Kadi: “We should just execute them. There is no need to try them, because the evidence is already there.”

No one can blame imaginations in Chad for running riot. Neither can tempers be blamed for flaring. Consider the facts of the case.

Zoë‘s Ark officials did not obtain authorization from Chadian officials to expatriate the children. They claimed in interviews after the botched operation that “the condition of the children required immediate action that time-consuming administrative procedure would have stalled.” According to them, these children were destitute, sick and dying. But Chad’s interior minister denies that, saying the group tried to make the children look sick.

Chadian officials who rescued the children confirmed that most of them were in robust health.

Indeed, Marc Garmirian, one of three French reporters who went on the trip with Zoë‘s Ark officials, interviewed members of the group during the operation and filmed them putting bandages on the children.

“I realized rather quickly that in what you could call the investigation, or the interviews they conducted with the children or the people who brought them the children, that they displayed a dramatic amateurishness,” Garmirian told TF1 television.

Garmirian said Zoë‘s Ark workers failed to tell the Chadians they dealt with that they planned to take the children to France. “They worked for a month and a half with around 100 people—accountants, nannies who looked after the children, cooks, drivers—to all these people their message was ‘we are opening an orphanage in Abeche.’ ”

Garmirian’s employer, the French news agency CAPA, has since released television footage that showed members of Zoë‘s Ark putting the bandages on the children and pouring dark liquid on them.

French government officials have also described Zoë‘s Ark’s attempt to fly the children out of Chad as illegal. A French diplomat told Time magazine that France’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued numerous warnings to the group about unethical activity because of alarming areas in its literature. “The initial description of the operation spoke of the ‘adoption’ of not 103, but 10,000 Darfur orphans—adoptions that are not only illegal under Chadian law, but would also be in violation of French law regulating adoption,” the diplomat said. Sudan’s laws, too, do not permit adoptions.

According to the French diplomat, a copy of the mission statement Zoë‘s Ark provided to Chadian authorities limited its activities to providing aid to refugees in local camps. “It says nothing about repatriation of children, which is what Children’s Rescue stated as its goal from the outset.”

French Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Rama Yade has also accused Zoë‘s Ark of hiding its identity by registering in Chad under the name of Children’s Rescue. French national Eric Breteau heads both organizations.

According to Yade, the French government warned Zoë‘s Ark months ago that it risked breaking the law. French police have reportedly been investigating the charity for some time, and Breteau was questioned by police in August about suspected plans to adopt children from Darfur.

Other aid and adoption groups have criticized the group’s plans as irresponsible and amateurish. According to some groups that are knowledgeable about African culture, if these children actually had been orphans, they probably would have been taken in by other family members. At least 91 of these children have parents who are alive and well.

For one example of the insensitivity that surrounds this case, consider French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments. “I will go and get those still there, whatever they may have done,” he said about the six officials of Zoë‘s Ark being held in Chad. An earlier trip to Chad by Sarkozy had secured the release of all but the group members at the center of the storm. “The role of the president is to look after all French people,” he declared.

And what is the role of the Chadian president? To watch Chadian children being sold under the guise of humanitarianism? How many African presidents have been able to go to France or any other country in the West to rescue their nationals,“whatever they may have done”?

As early as a day after the airlift was botched, even before investigations started, the French president was calling on Chadian President Idriss Déby to “immediately release” the French journalists detained in the alleged child kidnapping. Isn’t Chad supposed to be a sovereign nation with its own laws?

Chad’s Interior Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bachir spoke for the Chadian people and indeed all Africans by saying the Europeans should be tried and punished on Chadian soil.

“When our criminals are arrested in your country, they’re not brought here [to Chad],” he said in response to Sarkozy’s verbal brigandage. “Let’s be serious; those accused should be judged in Chad. They also have to serve their sentence here. Let them taste our prisons,” he added.

Sarkozy, whose government has been embarrassed by the affair, insists he would rather see French people tried in French courts. Apparently he thinks Africans are too stupid to grasp the intricacies of “modern” judicial processes.

France and Chad have a judicial agreement that could make it possible for the French to be tried in France. But does the former French colony of Chad have such an agreement with its former colonial lord that would make it possible for Chadians who go against the law in France to be tried in Chad?

Bachir insists that trying the suspects in French courts would be an “insult” to the Chadian people. I couldn’t agree more!

Humanitarian aid groups attending to those caught in the Darfur crisis say the atmosphere in the region has turned suspicious and hostile since the saga unfolded. They have no one but Zoë‘s Ark to blame for this. Let no one think Africans are ungrateful. The efforts of U.N. agencies and the host of humanitarian groups helping Africans who are caught in unfortunate situations are commendable. God will surely reward their altruism. But let nobody think Africans are stupid either!

Indeed, Zoë‘s Ark may have had noble intentions, but their mode of operation has been anything but noble. On its Web site, the group says its plans will “surely expose [us] to the wrath of certain politicians ... who will cry scandal, speaking of ethics, illegality or the psychological traumas of uprooted children.” So, they knew very well they had issues of ethics, legality and propriety.

Now this is not how to help anybody, let alone children. No one helps children by uprooting them from their loved ones. And no matter how poor or stupid a man is, you cannot go into his house and pluck his children from under his roof without his permission and without telling him about your noble intentions. You have to at least say, “Oh, since you are so poor and stupid that you cannot take care of your children, we need to take them to so-and-so place where they will be better cared for.”

Human Rights Watch, UNICEF and UNHCR have since come out with exposés on the plight of Chadian children. According to these reports, under President Déby’s rule, one in five children die before the age of 5, 40 percent do not go to school and thousands have been recruited as child soldiers. Many Chadian children lack access to food, water and health care. Their lives are under permanent threat, especially in the east, near the border with Darfur, where, apparently, Zoë‘s Ark recruited its “Darfur orphans.” They live in the midst of armed conflict between the government and rebel groups and cross-border raids by militias from Sudan, as well as inter-ethnic violence. All sad and deplorable. Clearly, children cannot flourish under such conditions.

Still, this does not give anyone the right to spirit them away without the permission of their parents, and without recourse to international laws and the laws of their countries.

Nobody loves African children more than their parents and other relatives. And no matter how bad the situation is, no one has the right to cry louder than the bereaved.

Related articles:

Osman, Mohamed (Nov. 24, 2007), “Sudan Sues Charity Over ‘Darfur’ Kids,” Associated Press.
Hancock, Stephanie (Nov. 23, 2007), “Air Firm Was Told UN, France Backed Zoe’s Ark-Source,”  Reuters.
Murphy, Francoise (Nov. 5, 2007), “Journalist freed by Chad criticizes aid workers,” Reuters.
Schlein, Lisa (Nov. 2, 2007), “Children from Chad Allegedly Abducted by Zoë‘s Ark to Remain in Orphanage for Now,” Voice of America News.
“Chad: Govt accused of hypocrisy in Zoë‘s Ark affair” (Nov. 8, 2007), VOA News.
Crumley, Bruce (Nov. 2, 2007), “New doubts over Chad adoptions,” Time.
Hancock, Stephanie (Nov. 1, 2007), “NGO hid truth of operations,” Mail and Guardian online.


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By SaraB, November 28, 2007 at 7:10 pm Link to this comment

Sheesh..that’s disheartening. Except that part about the culprits losing their seats. Sooner or later surely something like humanity will prevail.

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 28, 2007 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment

#116591 by Sara Brown on 11/28: “...relationship between the mentality of slavery and the mentality of such child snatchers. It’s neatly defined as racism, a term which embraces paternalism and the assumption of completely different standards of law and ethical behaviour based on race…...  in the US ‘adorable little Indian’ children are *legally* removed in alarming numbers from their ‘inadequate’ parents (and huge extended families) to be fostered by white couples…”

Oh yes,  Sara Brown, “children are *legally* removed” was a huge issue in Australia too with indigenous ‘aboriginal’ (in itself, a racist term) children and there were at least two “stolen generations” in the 1900’s. Regarding mixed-race kids: Intervention is a weapon we know of old - “If these babies were removed, at their present early age, from their present environment to homes in South Australia, they would not know in later life that they had Aboriginal blood and would probably be absorbed into the white population and become useful citizens…”

This year, the former Howard Neocon government used another tactic of smearing remote tribal indigenous communities as child-abusers as an excuse to get the army into their communities in a kind of mini-martial-law occupation. It was meant to be a pre-election fear campaign but it backfired badly and the federal minister running it as well as prime minister Howard both lost their seats in parliament as a result.

Needless to say, the covert reason for it all was to convert traditional tribal lands into short-term leases and then allow mining and oil exploration corporations to move in and take over at their leisure. Ironically, it was all run through their Northern Territory state Labor government (equivalent of the US Democrats!) which should have opposed it. The chief minister (governor) and her deputy were forced out of office as a result, too. See

To quote Marion Scrymgour, herself an indigenous NT government minister: “But there is another crisis here - another national emergency, another crying need for national response….... And that is the crisis of the ‘settler society’ - a society that appears incapable of resolving its own contradictions of occupying the Australian continent….... The second crisis is, in a sense, more deeply entrenched. There is an apparent lack of capacity by ‘settler society’ to resolve - let alone understand - the contradictions of living on the oldest continent….”. See and check additional related topics in the ‘have your say’ forum index.

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By Sara Brown, November 28, 2007 at 10:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is indeed a relationship between the mentality of slavery and the mentality of such child snatchers. It’s neatly defined as racism, a term which embraces paternalism and the assumption of completely different standards of law and ethical behaviour based on race as well as the hatred and violence more commonly associated with racism. In a similar practice in the US ‘adorable little Indian’ children are *legally* removed in alarming numbers from their ‘inadequate’ parents (and huge extended families) to be fostered by white couples. Of course they get the chance to grow up away from the poverty and hopelessness of the reservation which is great. Let’s not solve the problems (which the West created in the first place). Just bring the children to live with us. And by the way, the slave trade out of Africa is not just history. There are countries where slavery is still practiced (by other names) and to which plane loads of African children are still sold. I was in W Africa when a place with just such a cargo was grounded in Mauritania. Of course our own leaders have ostracized the slave owners and will be liberating their victims any day now.

Oops, no sorry we can’t afford to alienate Saudi Arabia. “Slavery is a part of Islam,” says Sheik Saleh Al-Fawzan whose books instuct 5 million Saudi students at home and abroad, (including the US). He continues, “Slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam.” Al-Fawzan is on the Council of Religious Edicts and Research, is the Imam of Prince Mitaeb Mosque in Riyadh and a professor at Imam Mohamed Bin Saud Islamic University. The Saudi govmt shows *its* commitment to ending de facto slavery by telling the Sheik to shut up? No, by firing his critics from their government posts. But heck, it’s only Africans (oh, all right a few Phillipinos, some Eastern Europeans blah, blah) we’re talking about here. Not *real* human beings like us - right?

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 28, 2007 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

#116546 by Akira_Maritias on 11/28 at 6:40 am: “It doesn’t surprise me what has happened here: people pretending to be good to get their ten minutes of fame, at the cost of innocent children. Kidnapping kids to satisfy their power trip…...”

Its like those people who buy puppies or kittens this time of year (for Christmas). Once they and their kids have had some fun, they dump the poor animals. Have aid agencies become some kind of “pet shop” merely to pander to the guilty egos of white Westerners?

Those “children” have already grown up on the streets of Paris ans other cities in Europe and have been made into an oppressed sub-society. Now, the opportunistic political creeps like Sarkosy are keen to denigrate them and to get tough on them. Helping them to have a real life is somehow forbidden…......

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By Akira_Maritias, November 28, 2007 at 7:40 am Link to this comment

Cyrena…you’re a humanitarian now? Funny, your crazy squawking makes me wonder sometimes…

It doesn’t surprise me what has happened here: people pretending to be good to get their ten minutes of fame, at the cost of innocent children. Kidnapping kids to satisfy their power trip…

...and the journalists disgust me. They could have called the authorities. They could have stopped it. Instead, they kept going. If they hadn’t been stopped before getting to France, would the journalists have spoken up? Or would they have merely edited out the parts that showed the children being kidnapped? Disgusting the world over.

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By cyrena, November 28, 2007 at 5:55 am Link to this comment

#116479 by Outraged
•  As I find TRUE humanitarians would also find this “beyond contempt”.

THANK YOU for saying this. Indeed, this is ONE humanitarian that DOES find this beyond contempt. Matter of fact, it REALLY shook me up. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. DEFINITELY didn’t want to. So, while it’s true that my own limited involvement with NGO’s has led me to understand that they don’t ALWAYS act in the best interest of those they are supposed to be assisting, it’s generally because of the standard stuff…a lack of understanding of cultural relativism. It’s a sort of common ailment among Westerners, to assume that what is good for us is good (or bad) for all, and we know that isn’t the case. Still, for the most part, the INTENT is humanitarian, and they certainly believe that they are helping.

THIS of course, is nothing short of the worst kind of criminal behavior. As far as I can tell, it’s no different than the slave trading/kidnapping of centuries gone by. They’re just using airborne ships instead ocean going vessels. I see no other difference, aside from the fact that the original slave traders probably didn’t use quite as much trickery.

This is despicable.

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By Outraged, November 28, 2007 at 12:12 am Link to this comment

RE: #116438 by eatbees on 11/27

“These so-called humanitarians are beyond contempt.”

While I can agree with you on this point, I question your choice of verbiage.  Humanitarians, are for the good of humanity.  While your comment doesn’t really elaborate considering TRUE humanitarians.  It comes across as ALL those who call themselves humanitarians or “so called” humanitarians are beyond contempt.  Can you elaborate?

As I find TRUE humanitarians would also find this “beyond contempt”.

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 27, 2007 at 11:33 pm Link to this comment

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child…....

Take up the White Man’s burden,
And reap his old reward—
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

Rudyard Kipling

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By eatbees, November 27, 2007 at 8:48 pm Link to this comment

These so-called humanitarians are beyond contempt. They are nothing but child stealers and con artists, though apparently they are self-deluded enough to believe their own cover story. The fake bandages and IV units reveal a thought process completely divorced from reality, and an alarming arrogance regarding the intelligence of the Chadian authorities. I agree with the guy who said they should be executed, or at least the Minister of the Interior who said, “Let them taste our prisons.” Thanks to the author for bringing us this important story.

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By Dave23, November 27, 2007 at 6:32 pm Link to this comment

Does anybody know what actually happened to the journalists like Marc Garmirian who filmed the whole operation? Are they being charged as well? I think there’s a point when journalists have a duty to act, and I think that point is reached when they are witnessing the kidnapping of 103 children.

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By Dave23, November 27, 2007 at 6:28 pm Link to this comment

“On Oct. 25, the group was stopped while on the way to Abeche airport (Chad) to put 103 “Sudanese orphans” on a flight to France.”

Fournier Michel:

This article never says that the children were put on the airplane. It very explicitly says that the children were stopped on the way to the airport. What else do you have to suggest that this article is fantastical? It seems to match up pretty well with the reports on the BBC and everywhere else. The most appalling thing is these journalists who stood by and watched the whole thing happen, and now are at least getting their work all over the airwaves in France, if not also profiting from the whole ordeal. The people carrying out the operation were clearly just nuts and should be tried and imprisoned in Chad. I don’t know what the journalists’ excuse is though.  I think you can trust the articles on this site. You’re attempt to call into question the validity of the articles on this site is totally unwarranted, particularly with the example you provided.

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By geronimo, November 27, 2007 at 5:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In so far as the downtrodden of the world are concerned, charity is a net loss, in that it allows governments to pretend that the poor are being provided for, when, in fact, considering the actual need, these charities at best provide token relief.  What charity organizations might consider, were they truly interested in the well-being of the poorest among us, is to own up to the utter inadequacy of their efforts to stem the tide of poverty and suffering and to direct their efforts instead upon pressuring governments to do whatever it takes to care for their very own.  This way charities will be getting at the root cause of the problem.  Which, alas, is not likely to happen being that it would put them out of business.

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By Fournier Michel, November 27, 2007 at 1:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I live in France. Two journalists accompanied members of Zoe’s Arc. Their documentary was aired on French TV the night following the release of the journalists. They filmed the entire 2nd part of the operation.

Amazingly, your article has managed to spin this story into an unrecognizable fantasy. Just for starters: The children NEVER boarded the aircraft. The cars were stopped on the road.

What does this say for your reporting in other articles ? Sometimes, making a story out of gossip really goes wrong… as in this case. It means we cannot trust anything you write?


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By 1drees, November 27, 2007 at 12:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Some people just cant do themselves any favors at all.

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