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Chad Officials Probe Child Abductions As Aid Groups Search For Relatives

Local authorities in eastern Chad and three international aid agencies will face major detective work in tracing the families of 103 children caught in the middle of an aborted adoption scheme. A report issued yesterday by three agencies, the International Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), revealed that most of the children that the French adoption group, Zoe’s Ark, tried to fly out of Chad last week as orphans in fact had parents and families. From Geneva, UNHCR spokesperson Helene Caux said the children are staying at an orphanage in Chad’s eastern city of Abeche and are being well cared for.

“Of course, they were provided with food, lots of love, and care, and toys. We made sure also that they were seeing the same people who went to interview them. So at this point, there is an investigation going on, and it will be up to the Chadian authorities to bring to the public the result of this investigation,” she said.

Caux said the three humanitarian aid organizations determined that 91 or the 103 children that Zoe’s Ark attempted unsuccessfully to fly to France last Friday had been living with at least one adult family member they considered to be their parents. Interviews with the remaining 12 children, who are mostly between the ages of three and five, are continuing to get more information about tracing their relatives. The youngest of the 21 girls and 82 boys is about one year old, and the oldest is about ten. Caux says aid workers are trying to ensure a stable interim environment.

“What I can tell you about their state is that they are in good health, but they have been quite afraid of what happened to them. They have been quite traumatized, and our goal has been to try to stabilize their emotional mood and to make sure that they feel secure and are not afraid any more,” she notes.

The UNHCR spokesperson said the children Zoe’s Ark claimed it was trying to rescue came mostly from Chadian villages along Chad’s unstable border with Sudan’s troubled Darfur region. Chadian authorities are detaining six members of the French charity on kidnapping charges. The remaining ten Europeans arrested include journalists traveling with the group and a Spanish flight crew. All are under investigation by local officials near Abeche and could face charges of abduction and fraud. Helene Caux would not give an opinion on the NGO’s motives for its attempted airlift, but noted that the three international aid groups, which conduct day-to-day ground operations in Chad, now face the task of trying to repair damaged relations with the Chadian people.

“I can only tell you that the story of what happened to the 103 children last week certainly broke sort of a bond of trust that we had with the local population. So we’re trying to rebuild this bond. But we also see that the local population knows that we’ve been working in eastern Chad for the past four years to try to assist them and to try to assist the refugees from Darfur. So it will be said that we are confident that we will be able to rebuild this bond,” she said.