Zoe's Ark children start to return home in Chad

Chad and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) began on Friday to send home 103 African children that a French charity had sought to fly to France in October for adoption, authorities said.

“Unicef has committed itself to monitor these children in their respective families,” Mariam Ndiaye, Unicef representative for Chad, said as the youngsters began their journey home.

Eighty-three children were the first to leave an orphanage in Abeche, eastern Chad, on Friday in two buses headed 150km east to Andre where family members were reported to be waiting for them.

The 103 children—almost all of whom are from Chad—had been staying at the orphanage in the wake of the scandal involving the Zoe’s Ark charity, which claimed that they were Darfur refugees.

The charity’s head, Eric Breteau, and five colleagues were sentenced in December to eight years’ hard labour by a Chad court for the attempted airlift last year, before being sent to France to serve their sentence.

Five Sudanese children and one child authorities are still trying to identify will be temporarily placed in the care of the Red Cross.

“The parents were abused and false promises were made,” Chadian Social Action Minister Ngarmbatina Carmel Sou IV said as the 81 boys and 22 girls aged one to 11 years prepared to go home.

During the trial in Ndjamena in December, parents accused Zoe’s Ark personnel of promising to send their children to school in eastern Chad.

Last Friday, Paris welcomed the Chadian president’s plans to pardon the charity workers convicted of “attempted kidnapping”, but refused to pay their €6-million fines.

“It is not for the government to pay, but at the same time, a solution must be found,” said Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

President Idriss Déby Itno, who has previously said he would grant a pardon to the aid workers, last Thursday told France 24 news channel that this would come in “less than a month”.

But the president, who was supported by France when rebels attacked the Chadian capital last month, said “a solution” still had to be found regarding the compensation for the children’s families.

The aid workers were detained October 25 last year as they were about to put the children on a flight from Abeche to France.

They said they believed the children were orphans from Darfur, across the border in Sudan, but international aid staff later found almost all the children to be Chadian and to have at least one living parent.

The case raised tensions between France and Chad, a former French colony, as Paris prepared to spearhead a 3 700-strong European Union peacekeeping force in eastern Chad to protect refugee camps in the region bordering Darfur.

A vanguard of the 14-nation mission deployed to Chad and the Central African Republic last month.—Sapa-AFP


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