Chad Charges French Charity With Kidnapping

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A French humanitarian group says it was in the African country of Chad to save orphans from the war in Darfur in nearby Sudan. The government of Chad has charged members of the group with kidnapping. The actions of this small, volunteer group have created a diplomatic mess for the French government.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

A French humanitarian group says it was in the African country of Chad to save orphans from the war in Darfur in nearby Sudan. The government of Chad has charged members of the group with kidnapping. The actions of this small, volunteer group have created a diplomatic mess for the French government. It could even have repercussions for the U.N. Peacekeeping Force, which France will lead and which is just now preparing to deploy to the Sudan-Chad border.

Eleanor Beardsley explains from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: It couldn't have turned out worse for humanitarian organization Zoe's Ark. The small charity group had hoped to bring 103 children from Darfur to live temporarily with host families in France. But their plane never left the ground. And now, the organizers, three journalists and seven Spanish members of the flight crew are behind bars in Chad and charged with kidnapping and fraud.

The Chadian government says the children were from Chad, not from Sudan's Darfur region and that they are not orphans. Chad's president Idriss Deby spoke to the press after questioning the aide workers when they were arrested last Thursday.

President IDRISS DEBY (Chad): (Through translator) Clearly, their goal was to kidnap and steal these kids from their parents, and sell them to pedophile organizations in Europe, or kill them and sell their organs.

BEARDSLEY: Well, the accusations have shocked France. They haven't surprised those who know President Deby. He is an African strong man who arrived in power 17 years ago in a military coup and changed Chad's Constitution to keep his job. While his countrymen are said to be humiliated by the affair, Deby seems to be milking it for all its worth.

(Soundbite of French news broadcast)

BEARDSLEY: French news reports say Chad's state television has been showing non-stop coverage of Deby alongside the children, appearing at once as their savior and father figure.

But the rash and irresponsible way Zoe's Ark to try to spirit the children out of Chad also quickly came to light. The organization operated under a different name in Africa and some witnesses say they had bandaged some of the children's heads to make them look sick. French television broadcast two of the supposed orphans being interviewed about their trip to France.

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The white people came to our village and told my father we could go to school and ride in a car, so he let us go with them, said one child.

A car came with two whites and a black who spoke Arabic, said another little girl. The driver said to me, come here and I will give you some cookies.

But Serazh Mal(ph) who is working in Chad for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says finding out the whole truth will take awhile.

Mr. SERAZH MAL (Staff, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees-Chad): We are now going through the process of talking to the children, trying to find out who they are. But we have all to understand, it has to be done properly. And little by little, we will have the information. It will have also to be confirmed after talking to the children, to go to the villages where they say they are coming from, try to see whether or not they have relative there.

BEARDSLEY: The affair is said to be opening up old colonial wounds between France and Chad, and embarrassing the French government.

Adoption is strictly illegal in Muslim countries like Chad, and the French government had warned Zoe's Ark in a letter in August about its plans to airlift out orphans from Darfur.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy phoned President Deby over the weekend to condemn the operation. Sarkozy is said to be worried that a French-led peacekeeping force that is to be deployed on the Chad-Sudan border - a force Chad initially resisted - could be jeopardized by the incident.

While Deby assured Sarkozy that the peacekeeping mission will not be affected, Robert Menard, of the organization Reporters Without Borders, says Deby's manipulation of the incident is just one of the risks.

Mr. ROBERT MENARD (President, Reporters Without Borders): (Through translator) The question is how is he going to use this and how is he going to disrupt the humanitarian organizations on the ground there now. But even beyond all that, this is going to be seen in the Muslim world as the West taking away Muslim children and trying to change their culture. This is a complete fiasco from every way you look at it.

BEARDSLEY: Despite the well-meaning intentions of those who wanted to help the children, with 16 Europeans now sitting in an African jail, questions are also being raised about the lack of accountability for humanitarian organizations operating in emotionally-charged war zones like Darfur.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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