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How Not to Help Africans

Gbemisola Olujobi
Contributor
A journalist since 1984, Gbemisola Olujobi is the former Editor of the Living Section at The Guardian, Nigeria's biggest and most influential newspaper. The bulk of her work as a journalist has been in the…
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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