President Nicolas Sarkozy made a quick trip to Chad Sunday afternoon to thank President Idriss D√©by for his help in securing the release of three French journalists and four Spanish airline stewardesses detained since October 25 for their suspected implication in an illegal evacuation of “Darfur orphans.”
Six members of the inept non-profit organization called Arche de Zo√© are still being held in the maximum security prison of N’Jamena, accused of operating under false pretenses, kidnapping 103 children, and tampering with their identity. Three male members of the Spanish crew remain in custody, along with a Belgian pilot and four Chadians, all suspected of complicity in this sordid enterprise.
If convicted, they face 5 to 20 years of hard labor.
Arche de Zo√© (Zoe’s Ark, a play on Arche de No√©, French for Noah’s Ark) is the brainchild of Eric Breteau, former sales rep and volunteer fireman from the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil, and his companion, Emilie Lelouch who served on ambulance crews. The humanitarian Bonny & Clyde met in Indonesia where they were doing rescue work after the December 2004 tsunami. Their dream of saving 10,000 orphans from Darfur degenerated into a heartless manipulation of all concerned: volunteer host families in France, authorities and helpers in Chad, a 7-member Spanish airline crew, and 103 Chadian toddlers collected from villages near the Sudanese border.
Today, distraught parents are coming to the city of Ab√©ch√© to retrieve the children they entrusted to village chiefs and assorted intermediaries who promised they would be properly nourished and educated in the town of Adr√©. No one said anything about taking them to Ab√©ch√©…and it now appears that the Chadian helpers were not told they were being collected for export to France.
The children’s convoy was stopped by the Chadian police in the dark of night as the white UN-style vehicles made their way to a makeshift landing strip in the bush where a chartered jet was waiting for immediate takeoff. The news hit the French media on October 25th, followed by an unending flow of revelations about the deceptive methods of Arche de Zo√©–disguised as “Children Rescue” for on the ground operations in Chad. When I heard that one of the detained journalists, Marc Garmarian of Capa TV agency, had been filming the operation since October 17th, I phoned the agency, and spoke to Patrick Manoukian. He told me they had been following the rescue operation from a distance and decided to send a reporter when it became clear that the evacuation was imminent. The agency was intrigued by the idea that an NGO would openly declare its intention to smuggle hundreds of African children into France at a time when all the talk was about restricting immigration. But Garmarian’s doubts grew as he watched Breteau and his group in action. The documentary, said Manoukian, would be an expos√©…if they could ever recover the images…and the cameraman. He did not tell me that the cameraman had already sent enough material to incriminate the pseudo-humanitarians. It has since been edited and was screened on M6 TV just as Garmarian was flying back to France.
Manoukian said that Arche de Zo√© was not an isolated case; since the tsunami there has been a raft of makeshift NGOs, taking things into their own inexperienced hands, doing more harm than good. “Sarkozy,” he said, “who’s busy making one law per day, would do well to look into this problem.”
Now Fran√ßois Hollande and his Socialist colleagues are sputtering about Sarkozy showing off as usual, running over to Chad to free the journalists and stewardesses… Yes, of course, they admit, it’s good that they’ve been liberated, but why was the NGO allowed to do what it did and why hasn’t the government arranged for their extradition? The all-time champions of diversity and respect for “others” don’t trust an African jurisdiction to do justice. What’s worse, they don’t seem to care that a handful of self-appointed do-gooders have run roughshod over gullible Africans and done great harm to innocent children.
You don’t need to read French to capture the tone of the Arche de Zo√© website.
Massacres in Darfur. The world is letting it happen. We must intervene at all costs, by all means legal and illegal. Every five minutes a child dies in Darfur. The link to an April 28 press release is still active on the site. The newly minted NGO promises to rescue 10,000 orphans and resettle them in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. Apparently Breteau presented his project to someone at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who advised him to drop the reckless ill-conceived plan. Established NGOs started complaining that Arche de Zo√© was abusively posting their logos on its site. Breteau was called in for questioning by the Protection of Minors brigade. Arche de Zo√© people were kicked out of adoption forums because of obviously questionable methods.
In short, many red flags went up but none of them stopped the Arche of Zo√© from going to the limits of its folly. One of Breteau’s collaborators, a small town doctor named Philippe von Winkelberg, set up a sister association–COFOD, the collective of Darfur families-that operated with strict rules of secrecy. Families attracted by the AdeZ website were directed to COFOD and asked to contribute at least 2,400 Euros to the cause. At least 350 joined, contributed, attended meetings, waited impatiently to host one or several orphans and save Darfur.
The operation was compartmental: a few people knew everything, most people only knew what they were told. Families were led to believe that after smuggling the children into France they could apply for refugee status, naturalization, and finally adoption. Many claim today that they were only seeking to host the children. French authorities say they warned their Chadian counterparts about Arche de Zo√©. They turned up in Chad under the name “Children Rescue” and obtained authorizations to install a clinic in Ab√©ch√©. The niece of a man who is now being held for kidnapping says he didn’t know about the plan to bring the children to France. But it’s clearly announced on their website.
Garmarian’s film shows scenes with Chadians who went into the villages to collect orphans; they were not told about the planned airlift. Local women hired to take care of them this past month did not know either; they were dismissed the day before the planned departure. And at the last minute a handful of close Chadian collaborators were informed of the real goal of the operation, and dismissed. They are shocked. They protest. One of them pulls away the orphan disguise with a single phrase: “The children are Sudanese but they have families in Chad.”
Arche de Zo√© is still attracting loyal support from some quarters despite the mass of incriminating evidence of deceptions, the misconceptions, disdain for the local population, and utter disregard for the welfare of toddlers lured out of their villages and made into orphans for the sake of a misguided cause. Some of the prospective host families are suing the association, but others are marching in their name. Enraged crowds in Chad accuse the Europeans of latter day colonialism aggravated by disrespect for Islam-Muslim children were destined for Christian families-while silent marchers in Paris demand justice…meaning the immediate release of the prisoners.
One of the liberated journalists, Marie-Agn√®s Peleran, was actually on “humanitarian leave” from France 3 and allegedly belonged to Arche de Zo√© and was a candidate for hosting a child. The second, Jean-Daniel Guillou of Synchro X photo agency, declared as he left the prison in N’Jamena that his thoughts went to those he left behind; “they are idealists, not criminals.” And Garmarian, whose expos√© provides much of the information relayed here, entered Chad as “medical auxiliary and cameraman” for Arche de Zo√©. Apparently it never occurred to him that he could be considered an accessory to the crime.
The Arche de Zo√© imbroglio has been receiving the media attention it deserves. It is an emblematic story with multiple ramifications.
These self-appointed do-gooders considered themselves above the law by virtue of their “idealistic” motives. Disinterested, by definition, they collected huge amounts of money they never could have earned by their own professional efforts. They were reduced–perhaps because of their pitiful incapacity to deliver genuine Darfur orphans– to manipulating everyone. And, worst of all, they used children as human shields for their overblown humanitarian pretensions.
Older, wiser NGOs–UN High Commission on Refugees, International Red Cross, and UNICEF– working together with local people are now trying to sort out the artificially orphaned children. Irony of ironies-parents who have already come forward to claim their children will have to wait for further verification because they don’t issue birth certificates in Chad. The provision for DNA testing to facilitate family reunification in France was the latest cause c√©l√®bre of the human rights lobby.