Zoe's Ark – idealists or criminals?

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On 25 October 2007, 16 European citizens were arrested in Chad for attempting to evacuate 103 Sudanese orphans out of Africa. The orphans were to be given refuge by host families in France.

Over the next few days, it was revealed that the majority of children were neither Sudanese nor orphans. The incident has been condemned by world leaders and humanitarian organisations globally, while Zoe’s Ark spokespeople — the charity behind the failed operation — insist that their actions were to rescue ‘children of war’.

The situation is still unfolding but one of the most pertinent questions remains: How could this have possibly happened?

Initially described in the media as child traffickers and humanitarian mercenaries, with Chadian president Idriss Deby Itno accusing the charity workers of having pedophilic and organ-selling intentions, this is far from the case. Rescuing children from poverty was always at the heart of the cause. The ethics behind how the group undertook their mission, however, are debatable.

Eric Breteau, founder of Zoe’s Ark, is a 37-year-old volunteer firefighter and former president of a French four-wheel drive association. Moved by the devastation of the Asian tsunamis at the end of 2004, Breteau decided to take action. He and girlfriend Emilie Lelouch founded Zoe’s Ark in 2005, naming the charity after a small girl left orphaned by the tsunami. The organisation raised money to help Indonesian children who had lost their parents and homes because of the catastrophe. Over the next two years, the charity set up refugee shelters, ran cultural enrichment projects and flew a boy to France for a medical operation.

Visiting Darfur earlier this year, Breteau was shocked by the ‘wasteland’ he saw. Located near the Chadian border, where war has ravaged the region for four years, the conflict in western Sudan has caused more than 200,000 deaths and 1.5 million displacements. According to Breteau and Lelouch, providing aid to the area was a situation of urgency that was being slowed down by bureaucratic regulations.

Their solution was to give Sudanese orphans a better life by finding them shelter in France, where they would have access to education and opportunities away from war, poverty and genocide. The children could seek asylum to stay in the country and after a few years, their host families would be able to formally adopt the children once they became French citizens. Zoe’s Ark launched their campaign in April 2007.

‘You need to understand that our operation is shaking up the status quo,’ Breteau said in a radio interview at the end of August, suggesting the unconventional nature of their methods.

What started off as good intentions soon became a tangled web of lies, misinformation and deceit. French families were told that the operation to evacuate Sudanese children was completely legal. The Zoe’s Ark website featured logos of reputable international organisations but without their endorsement. The French military, which had provided local air transport to charity workers, was told that it was to help ‘distressed children’ on the ground not an operation to bring them back to France.

In the months leading up to the failed evacuation, Zoe’s Ark held lectures and ran radio campaigns around France explaining their cause. They publicised the project in adoption forums on the Internet, while their own website emphasised the devastating statistics relating to the Darfur conflict. ‘If you do nothing, these children will die’, was the emotive plea.

Hundreds of French families were captivated. ‘We are the most conventional family’, exclaimed Jean Rieutord. ‘We have a car, a nice house, three kids, a dog, a cat. We have all we need!’ Describing his family’s desire to ‘make ourselves useful again’, Rieutord’s motivation was to contribute positively to the world.

Participating families felt they had done their research. They consulted the charity’s website, read all the information provided and signed agreements about their involvement. ‘We were convinced of the legality of the operation’, ran one of the headlines in French newspaper Liberation‘s coverage of the affair. While some wanted to adopt a Sudanese orphan in the long-term, others were more concerned about the short-term request to urgently provide shelter for the child.

‘I don’t want children But when I heard of this organisation, I was touched by the project,’ said Rachel Sanchez. Saving a child from poverty appealed to her sense of humanity. Bertrande Allemand, a single mother living in rural France, shared the same sentiment. ‘I wanted to save an orphan from war and hunger. I wanted there to be one less child suffering in the world,’ she explained. They donated thousands of euros each to help fund the rescue mission.

Underlying the fervent desire to save lives was Breteau’s undeniable charisma. His success at rallying support lay in his ability to motivate others to act with ‘courage and devotion.’ Whether they wanted to adopt a child, provide a temporary home or give medical aid, Breteau found a role for them which would be vital to the success of the operation. French doctor Dominique Gladin was among those who were persuaded to join the cause, by providing on-ground medical support to children in Chad. ‘His charisma is evident,’ said Gladin of Breteau. ‘He has a strong influence over his entourage. At the same time, he is calm, warm and knows how to listen to others.’

Establishing their base in Abeche, a Chadian city near Darfur, Zoe’s Ark was known as Children Rescue. No mention was made about the possibility of French families adopting the children, because adoption is illegal in Sudan and Chad. Instead, Chadian authorities were led to believe that the NGO wanted to establish a child centre in the region, to provide emergency accommodation, education and medical treatment to children in need. They had little contact with other international aid organisations in the area. ‘We knew they were here,’ said an unnamed aid official, ‘but they’d never attempted to liaise with the international NGOs.’

Finding Sudanese orphans to bring back to France was the next step. Media reports suggest that some of the children were collected by village elders, while others were given directly to Zoe’s Ark members. Their families were told that their children would be given an education in a nearby town and they would be able to visit the children regularly.

Although it is difficult to ascertain how much truth is in the children’s ever-changing stories, their accounts are nonetheless disturbing. ‘A car came with two Whites and one Black man, who spoke Arabic,’ said 10-year-old Mariam. ‘The driver said," Come with me, I’ll give you some money and biscuits and then I’ll take you home".’ Her father is still alive.

Some children claim that they were offered lollies to go with the charity workers. Ten-year-old Hamsa Brahim said, ‘Whites came and said they would enrol us in school They came to talk with our father and he allowed us to go with them. They said they would train us and that when we are grown up we would get a vehicle.’

None of the children interviewed thought they were being permanently removed from their family. At the time of arrest, the group had 103 children, aged between 1 and 10 years, with them.

Dominique Gladin says that charity co-founder Emilie Lelouch kept a dossier listing each child’s name, family situation and village, yet it is unclear how accurate this data is. Prior to recent media reports, charity members insisted that tribal elders verified the children as orphans. However, a documentary which aired on French television channel M6 shows a screening process taking place in Chad, with a charity worker failing to ask the tribal elders for details, documentation or verification. After the arrests of the Europeans, interviews conducted with the children indicate that the majority of them were not from the Sudan region or orphans at all, but rather, were local Chadians who were living with families.

It is hard to know what is true and what is a revised version of recent events, but one thing is certain Eric Breteau remains convinced that he was acting in the children’s best interests. ‘If I am thrown in prison for saving children from Darfur … I think that, after all, I would be proud to go to prison for that,’ Breteau said shortly before his arrest.

Marie-Agnes Peleran, one of the journalists travelling with the Zoe’s Ark members, called them ‘idealists but not criminals.’ On the other hand another journalist, Marc Garmirian, claimed that the group had lied to everyone.

Nonetheless, the children were being well fed and given medical attention during the ordeal. ‘There was not a single minute when the children’s lives were threatened or when they were mistreated,’ said the head of the French news agency Capa, Herve Chabalier, who employs Garmirian. Gilbert Collard, lawyer for Zoe’s Ark, described the group as ‘humanitarian hardliners who walked off the beaten track.’

Holding steadfast to the belief that the ends justified the means, charity workers cite the Geneva Convention as their legal justification. ‘They wanted to do things differently that doesn’t mean they wanted to do it dishonestly,’ Collard insisted.

New Matilda

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