The ongoing Zoe's Ark incident, involving the removal of 103 children from Chad to Europe, may be a case of French volunteer gallantry run amok. It also could be a story of avaricious individuals, looking to make a quick buck by grabbing unattended children.
But certainly the 16 Europeans charged in Chad with attempting to smuggle children they say were orphans from Sudan's troubled Darfur region – underscores the sensitivities involved when new or inexperienced groups insert themselves in dangerous places, presumably to do good.
Zoe's Ark is a nongovernmental organization founded by Eric Breteau, a volunteer fireman from Paris. Mr. Breteau's group vowed in April to save some 10,000 children in Darfur from starving.
But instead, the group's effort has created a diplomatic incident, angered Chadians, and – in the process – raised concerns among established international aid groups that their efforts will now be viewed with suspicion.
"We're very unhappy about what happened," says Niko Wolswijk, the interim head of Médecins sans Frontièrs-Holland's mission to Chad. "It has a clear impact on [other aid groups] here. Local people are saying: 'Hey, what are [the aid groups] doing here? Can we trust them?' "
Many French families, willing to offer the children a home, paid up to ¤3,000 ($4,328) in cash to Zoe's Ark. Paying cash up front is highly unorthodox, according to a staff member, who asked not to be identified, of Médecins du Monde, a Paris-based group of volunteer doctors who also help with adoptions in Africa, China, and Russia, among other places. "It isn't the way children are placed under any established process."
Yet Zoe's Ark has lost money in the expensive effort to help in Darfur, its members say – and much of the upfront cash given by parents was used to hire the Spanish plane that was to take the children to Europe.
The French government has been aware of Zoe's Ark and its humanitarian aims since the spring. But it disassociated itself in the wake of the smuggling charges this week, and after Chadian president Idriss Deby accused the Ark of pedophilia and organ trafficking.
Zoe's Ark members flew to Chad on French Army planes, according to French media stories yesterday. The French foreign ministry in Paris and the French embassy in Chad were in conversation with Zoe's Ark several times since last spring.
Almost from the moment it landed in Chad, the group's ideas for helping children changed. Members set up a camp on the border between Chad and Sudan, in a village called Adre, operated under a new name, and begin hiring local villagers to identify and rescue children in need. It shifted goals from saving starving children, to saving orphans, to helping injured children.
French media yesterday reported that local middlemen working on behalf of Zoe's Ark did not go into Sudan, but found children in local villages in Chad. Many were, apparently, not orphans, and many were Chadian. Some parents may have been given promises of a fine life in France for their children.
"These associations [like Zoe's Ark] can easily discredit us on the ground, in places like Darfur, where we have spent a lot of time trying to gain the trust of the locals," says the Médecins du Monde official.
On Oct. 22, Chad airport officials gave the clearance for a Spanish-rented plane to land.
The Darfur issue has played with no small drama or interest in France, a place where many large-scale protests against international indifference to the tragedy have taken place in the past two years.
Yesterday, a senior French official commented that while such groups as Zoe's Ark can't be supported if the local government finds illegality, still, "about 75 children on average die each day there."
French police searched the charity's offices and the founder's apartment as part of an inquiry into whether the group broke adoption laws, police officials said. Chad charged seven Spanish crew members of the chartered plane as accessories, along with two Chadians.
Christophe Letien, spokesman for the charity, insisted its intentions were merely humanitarian.
"The team is made up of firemen, doctors and journalists," he said at a news conference. "It's unimaginable that doubts are being cast on these people of good faith, who volunteered to save children from Darfur."
Next month, more than 3,000 European soldiers are scheduled to arrive in Chad, half whom are whom are from France. Chad has assured France that the Zoe's Ark incident will not affect plans to deploy the peacekeepers, a French official said Monday.
The dispute over the effort to take the children out of Chad has resonated powerfully in Chad. In Abéché, in eastern Chad, the fury is palpable."I'm angry and all the people here are angry," says police commissioner Idriss Mahmat Haroun. "They must follow the rules if they want to adopt children. This is a new system of child trafficking."
In the past couple days, residents have demonstrated outside the compound where Zoe's Ark is located, denouncing the group.
"I'm very sad because this is an inhumane action," says Jafar Abakar Mohammed, a merchant from the Adre region of eastern Chad where the majority of the children are from. "I can't imagine that people would come from a rich country and do something like that here. When people see white people come to help us and do bad things like this," he adds, "it means the white man is dangerous."
• Matthew Clark contributed from Boston. Siddick Adam Issa contributed from Abéché, Chad. Material from the Associated Press was used as well.