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Anne Else: Untangling The Zoe's Ark Affair

Anne Else's Letter from Elsewhere

Untangling The Zoe's Ark Affair (L'Affaire l’Arche de Zoe)

Extraordinary how one event can raise so many major issues. No, I’m not talking about the New Zealand police raids and arrests of 17 “terrorists’, but the even more bizarre case of the 103 African “orphans”.

Over the last week I’ve been trawling through the Internet trying to gather as much information as I can about this case. As far as I can tell, it goes like this:

Back in 2004, the French four-wheel-drive federation joined forces with a group called Zoe’s Ark (l’Arche de Zoe) to help children whose lives had been turned upside down by the Boxing Day tsunami. Their aim was to raise funds in France and work with United Nations personnel to create a village in Banda Aceh, as a refuge for at least 300 of the estimated 50,000 orphans created by the catastrophe, and the families who had taken them in. The tsunami pages of the Arche de Zoe site available last week stated very clearly:

“Our absolute priority is not to uproot these children, but to provide them with the means of growing up in an autonomous structure which will respect their culture and their past…and give them everything they need to grasp their future.” [LINK]

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Making four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicles available was part of the plan. The leaders were Guillaume Catala, said to be the initiator of Zoe’s Ark, and Eric Breteau, a former fireman and president of the four-wheel-drive federation.

These aims seem to have been successfully accomplished. Zoe’s Ark also brought an injured Indonesian boy to Paris for surgery on his leg, generating a good deal of publicity in the process.

So far, so good. But then confusion sets in. The site I visited last week appears to have become “the new Arche de Zoe site” [LINK]. The tsunami pages have been rewritten to give a retrospective account. This change is likely to be connected with the message that appeared last week here stating that “Zoe's Ark Foundation Inc. has no legal link nor associated with, related to or connected with the French charity ‘L'Arche de Zoé’ and Zoe's Ark Foundation Inc. does not endorse or condone any of the activities undertaken by the French charity ‘L'Arche de Zoé’. Zoe's Ark Foundation Inc. was set up for Tsunami relief which ceased operations in December 2006.”

As well as its tsunami pages, the old Arche de Zoe website also had pages on Darfur which had a completely different tone from the tsunami pages. These appear in substantially the same form on the new site. A press statement put out on the International Day for Darfur, 28 April accused the United Nations and the international community of “once again demonstrating its inability to prevent this massacre”. [LINK]

It announces an “evacuation operation” to bring 10,000 Darfur orphans to Europe and the USA, and calls for families prepared to receive a child. “In a few months these children will be dead”. The original site also stated that these plans “will surely expose [us] to the wrath of Khartoum, of certain politicians... who will cry scandal, speaking of ethics, illegality or the psychological traumas of uprooted children".

In May, French journalist Guillemette Faure received an email asking her to agree to “foster” (accueillir) one of 1000 Darfur orphans soon to arrive in France. She had been trying to adopt for some years, and was part of a group, Enfance et famille d’adoption, discussing adoption on the Internet. The Zoe’s Ark announcement “provoked inflamed discussions”, she says, on internet adoption forums. Although the group’s leaders warned against “mixing up citizen’s anger, humanitarian solidarity and familial projects”, she replied anyway, offering to take part.

Two weeks later she got an email which seems to have contained the same muddled mix of statements about the “rights of man”, French law, and UN resolutions on Darfur that still appears on the website. But it also suggested that although the immediate goal was to save the children’s lives, once the children were in France with their “foster families” and their status had been “regularised”, “those families who want to can then start the process with a view to adoption”. It was this statement, she says, which led Enfance et famille d’adoption (and, some sites say, other adoption groups too) to alert the French authorities.

On 14 June the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a communiqué [all the communiqués are on this site] noting that an unnamed non-profit organisation’s calls for families to take in a child from Darfur with a view to adoption did not comply with French, Sudanese or international law. Then in July, France’s State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights, Rama Yade, called for non-profit and international organizations to put forward projects “for the protection of the children of Darfur”. Six projects were chosen and began to be set up. Presumably the Zoe’s Ark project was not one of them.

On 3 August another communiqué headed “Arche de Zoe” strongly warned “families involved in the project to foster or adopt children from Darfur” to “exercise the greatest vigilance”. The operation did not have the support of the humanitarian organizations working in the area, there was no way of ensuring that the children were really orphans with no support, and Sudanese law did not permit adoption. (Chad does not permit it either.) [See... http://www.spcm.org/ ]

Faure doesn’t mention money. But according to Zoe’s Ark secretary Stephanie Lefebvre, 300 families each paid at least 2,400 euros to cover evacuation costs. http://allafrica.com/stories/200710261368.html
French news reports have said the group raised and spent 550,000 euro on the operation. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21547226/

By 24 October a group of families were waiting at the airport at Vetry, Marne, for the first planeload of children. The plane never arrived. It was stopped as it was preparing to take off from Abeche, near Chad’s border with Sudan, and the 17 Europeans on board were arrested.

They turned out to be six French Zoe’s Ark personnel (including Eric Breteau) operating under the name “Children Rescue”; a 75-year-old volunteer Belgian pilot; seven Spanish flight crew; and three French reporters (Marc Garmirian of Capa news agency, Jean-Daniel Guillou of Synchro X agency, and Marie-Agnès Peleran of France 3 Méditerranée TV station, who was in Chad while on humanitarian leave). Their papers had been signed by the president of Zoe’s Ark. Four Chad locals were also arrested. [LINK] & [LINK]

Frederick Moy, a member of the group of families, said they were there to “film the benefits of the operation” and that the group wanted above all to “draw attention to the genocide” in Darfur. [LINK]

The 103 children with them – 82 boys and 21 girls, aged from 1 to 10 – were taken into care. The international Committee of the Red Cross, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF later jointly reported that 85 came fro villages in the Adre and Tine zones of eastern Chad on the border with Darfur in the Sudan, and 91 said they had been living with their families, “consisting of at least one adult they considered to be their parent”. [LINK]

Though accounts differ, it’s clear that children, and in some cases their parents, were offered inducements to go with the men (both Europeans and locals) who collected them. One 10-year-old, Hama Brahim, said the whites “came four times to take children from our village – many children went with them”. He went with his father’s permission after they promised to enroll him in school. [LINK]

So far, so familiar. Ever since international adoptions began to surge following the Vietnam war, murky cases of children being obtained for adoption under false pretences, in connection with large sums of money changing hands, have been surfacing around the world. A scandal involving an American agency in Samoa recently led its government to ban foreign agencies and prohibit the adoption of Samoan children by foreign couples. Child adoption is big business, and eager first-world adopters seem remarkably easy to hoodwink about what their money is really buying. When poverty and trauma put thousands of children in peril, the drive to adopt and the urge to help pave the way for deception and exploitation to flourish.

But in Chad, the stakes loom much larger for the major players than the fate of a hundred children or the dilemmas of international adoption. The case was immediately embroiled in a tangled web of geopolitics.

Chad was a French colony until 1960, and France has strongly supported the current president, Idriss Deby, last year sending troops to help him quell a rebellion. About 1000 French soldiers are there now, and another French-led force of 3000 troops, half of them French, are about to be deployed in eastern Chad and the north of the Central African Republic to safeguard the camps of refugees from the conflict in Darfur.

So the whole affair was highly embarrassing for new French president Sarkozy – especially as there have been persistent reports that Zoe's Ark members were granted access to French military aircraft and facilities in Chad (and it is difficult to see how they could have got as far as they did without some such assistance).

Deby made angry accusations that the children were being kidnapped for pedophile rings and organ transplants. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, set up a crisis team headed by Rama Yade, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights. She flew to Darfur and stated "We know absolutely nothing about how these children were gathered. We don't know their origins, their nationality or the reality of their family situation. Taking them like this is in my view illegal and irresponsible.” Sarkozy somewhat belatedly backed her up, and French police searched the Zoe’s Ark offices and Eric Breteau’s home. [LINK]

French supporters of Zoe’s Ark said they had been in the region for two months, and claimed that both Kouchner and Yade knew about and agreed with the operation. An Elysee Palace spokesman said that Zoe’s Ark had approached Yade three months ago, but she had “blocked every initiative” they sought to take. The French families demonstrated outside the Chad embassy in Paris. [LINK]

Hundreds of Chadian women demonstrated, accusing the Europeans in custody of "child trafficking" and demanding they be tried in Chad. [LINK]

By now French critics were accusing the government of bowing to pressure from Chad, and putting already vulnerable humanitarian efforts in the region at risk (meaning, presumably, more at risk than they already were thanks to the machinations of Zoe’s Ark). The group’s lawyer, flamboyant, high-profile Gilbert Collard [LINK], said the arrests and the government’s reaction were politically motivated, and accused the Chad government of exploiting the case as a "bargaining chip" to use against Paris during talks over the deployment of the peacekeeping force (though Deby said this was not at risk). French opposition leader Francois Hollande warned the government "not to allow the Chadian president to use this sinister affair, politically, diplomatically or worse". [LINK]

Meanwhile the prospect of French citizens, whom many saw as merely misguided do-gooders, being tried by Chad’s courts and risking sentences of up to 20 years’ hard labour was stirring up righteous outrage in France (remember the Rainbow Warrior aftermath?) Sarkozy called for the journalists to be freed and sent home, and Rama Yade insisted that France would provide "maximum assistance" to the aid workers and would "not abandon" them. On 1 November, Agence France-Presses reported Deby as stating, "I would like for my part to see Chadian justice rapidly shed light and see the journalists and the air hostesses released...but it's not up to me to force the hand of the law. There's a procedure.” The headlines read: “Chad President calls for Freedom of French Innocents” [LINK]. On 4 November Sarkozy himself flew to Chad to discuss "the situation of our compatriots and the other European citizens being prosecuted." [LINK]

The children already seemed to have been forgotten.


- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service

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