BACKGROUND: On October 25, 2007, authorities in Chad stopped a plane full of 103 children from taking off towards France. They arrested, tried and convicted six members of the Arche de Zoé, a French charity organization, for child traffiking. The six were transferred to France to serve out their sentece of eight years of prison with hard labor. On January 28, 2008, a French judge converted the sentence into eight years of prison in France.
This piece was recorded in July, 2007, a couple of months before they started their operation on the ground. Click here
to hear reports on the French hearing and verdict.
Nine-year old Louis Rieutord will soon trade bedrooms with his parents.
Louis: On va échanger la chambre—la mienne avec mes parents
His mother prompts him to explain why
Claire: Pourquoi, parce la elle est plutôt plus grande ?
Ours is bigger, right?
Louis: oui, elle est plus grande.
Yes. It's bigger. The family hopes that Louis will be sharing it--not with either of his two older sisters--but with a new member of the family. They are preparing to become a host family for an orphaned child from Darfur, the war-torn region in western Sudan.
Lelouch: This is a big project, a crazy project.... to evacuate some childrens from Darfur.
Emilie Lelouch is a member of the Arche de Zoe--"Zoe's Ark"--a French humanitarian organization that has launched an operation to bring 1,000 orphans from Darfur to France.
What's essentially a civil war between the Sudanese government and rebel groups has resulted in a tragedy for hundreds of thousands of people, who have been killed or displaced.
Lelouch: You cannot go in Darfur. The Sudanese government say you cannot go. We cannot work with children. So the only way to save their lives is to go outside of the country
The Arche de Zoe was founded by Eric Breteau, a firefighter who spent two years in Indonesia after the tsunami hit south Asia in 2004. He set up temporary camps for children there. In April 2007, he went to Sudan to try to do something similar for children in Darfur. He found appalling conditions there.
Breteau [translation]: The scene that marked me the most was between two destroyed villages. A zone that we might consider a desert area, with few trees and vegetation. And in this area of a few kilometers, there were about 50 children who were living on their own, without adults. They were in a deplorable sanitary situation. These children had a really low life expectancy.
Breteau decided the conditions in Darfur were too dangerous to do any work on the ground:
Breteau [translation]:There is no sign that we can effectively help the people of Darfur on the ground. To save children, the only solution today is to evacuate them. And once they are protected we can talk longer with the UN, with the Sudanese government, to find solutions. We start by taking children out of danger. Even if the discussions take four years, at least the children won't be dying.
Breteau wants to find a thousand families in France to take in children, orphans, five years old and younger. Emilie Lelouch explains that they will be evacuated without the support of the French government, or the permission of the Sudanese
Lelouch: Each time in your life, you want to do something and you have to ask. And yes, we know about what's happening over there for many years, so we stop to ask authorization. It's a risk. We have to take risks for sure.
It's dinnertime for the Rieutord family. Claire and Jean have three children, Pauline and Juliette who are in high school, along with 9-year old Louis, who they hope will soon have a new roommate from Darfur. They all live in a three-storey house in a Paris suburb.
Jean [translation]: We are the most conventional family! We have a car, a nice house, three kids, a dog a cat. We have all we need! There's most definitely a personal motivation. To make ourselves useful again--Our children are getting older and we'd like to do this. Especially if it's to help someone who's living in poverty.
The family has already discussed a name for the child:
Juliette: Joseph. Et peut-être Adèle pour la fille.
Joseph, or Adele, if it's a girl. We go upstairs to the bedrooms. Louis says his new room will be painted dark blue and white—with boats.
Louis: Ca va être bleu marine et blanc, avec des bateaux
Breteau: Bien, on va démarrer la réunion...
The Arche de Zoe has been hosting information sessions all over France this summer. In Paris in June, Eric Breteau explained the project to a roomful of 40 people, mostly couples; many of them were middle aged. No one of color. Breteau spent much of the four hours reassuring everyone of the legality of the project:
Breteau [translation]: This operation is perfectly legal. This operation is based on the universal declaration of human rights, the declaration of the rights of children, and the 1951 convention on the rights of refugees.
Breteau explained that the French authorities won't send the children back. After that, he explained it would be a series of administrative steps to get the families appointed as guardians. Then the idea is that each family will apply for asylum on behalf of their child. Five years after they receive asylum, they will be able to ask for French citizenship. And then they can be formally adopted as French children.
Complex and unorthodox, this operation, warned Breteau, is sure to raise some eyebrows:
Breteau [translation]: You need to understand that our operation is shaking up the status quo, shaking up the system. It's not going to please everyone, and many will try to keep us from moving forward.
The French Ministry of foreign affairs put up a message on its website warning that the children, being Sudanese, won't be adoptable without permission from their government. A ministry spokesman declined to comment any further for this story. Though Emiliy Lelouch of the Arche de Zoe said that members of her organization met with staff from the Ministry who, she says, unofficially condoned the project. Some French adoption organizations are unhappy, though
Peyre: Our main criticism is that there has been a confusion between fostering, providing relief, and adoption.
Janice Peyre is the chair of EFA, the Federation of adoptive children and families in France, a volunteer-run advocacy organization.
Peyre: They have created emotional expectations for some of among some of these people. Lead them to think that, in a context where inter-country adoption is increasingly difficult and complicated- there was perhaps a short, quick, easy way of adopting through Darfur.
Lelouch: At the beginning it was not a story of adoption. To us it's really important to save lives, that's it. We don't know what happens later. And sorry, but we don't care. We have to do something now. Now we have to go there and bring them back that's the point. We work in an emergency. We are not an agency of the adoption. This is not our job.
Emilie Lelouch says that the Arche de Zoe isn't focusing on adoption. But that's not exactly true. When the organizers first started looking for families, they went to those who already had approval from the French Government to adopt a child. They posted on adoption message boards.
Lelouch: We went to Internet and we started to discuss with people who was waiting for a child for a long time, just because we think they are much more ready
[knocking on a door, "bonsoir"]
Manuella and Emmanuel live in a stylish loft-space in Paris. She is 41, he's 40. They found out they couldn't have children themselves, so they decided to adopt. But it's been hard, because they are over 35 years old.
Emmanuel: It seem that we arrived a little bit late [laugh] for the adoption
They were intrigued by the Arche de Zoe's project
Emmanuel: It seems to us as a possibility to uh welcome a baby very quickly and to bypass the normal uh- adoption process that is very long and uh very desperating
The couple has some doubts, though.
Manuella: The biggest question mark was the possibility of the children to be ill.
They are particularly concerned about AIDS. Manuella worries about her reaction if her child were bleeding:
Manuella: I'm afraid that I would not be able go towards him and take him in my arms. And when I'm not able to do that, it means you are not able to be a mother to that child. I don't know how it would be if he was here, but I think that I would be rigid. And I don't think it would be good for me or him. For him most of all.
Emmanuel: The meeting confirmed that uh- we were not ready to go further with this project
Manuella: I'm not sleeping well since. It's a hard decision. You feel very bad because you know that you are leaving a baby. I was surprised by seeing all the other people at the meeting who seemed to have less doubts than us.
Emmanuel: Many of these people consider their wish- welcoming a child of Darfur as a humanitarian act. And we do not. Our first aim is to adopt a child- it's not to save a child from death
Peyre: An adoption is not a humanitarian cause.
That's Jaince Peyre, again, from the EFA adoption organization.
Peyre: Adoptees are the first to tell us: 'We don't want to be labeled a good cause for the rest of our lives. And we don't want our parents to tell us, oh after all we did for you, you're so in-grateful', because you're reacting as a teenager and questioning your family
Another concern that Peyre and others have is: How does the organization know the children will be orphans? The Arche de Zoe says they will get signed statements from community elders, as well as written requests that the organization evacuate each child.
Peyre: What guarantees do we have that these letters will genuinely come from the elders of the communities? what do you do if in a few months or a few years time someone shows up and says these letters were a forgery, or there are parents, only the elders didn't know these people had survived?
Peyre looks back to what happened to hundreds of children evacuated during the1994 Rwandan genocide, and who were adopted by families in Italy and France.
Peyre: After a while, extended families in Rwanda asked these children be returned to them. So it created difficult situations
Despite the risks, the Arche de Zoe says hundreds of families are set to go. Like Rodolphe and Agathe, from Bourges, a town in the center of France. They drove two hours to attend the first information session in Paris. In a café afterwards, Rodolphe explained their motivations:
Rodolphe [translation]: We always said that our financial situation would let us help a child.
They have four biological children, aged six- to 13-years old.
Rodolphe [translation]: You must realize that when one has four kids, it means you love kids. And I think that when we're older, with hindsight, we'll be able to say at least we did that, and at least we saved a child.
Emilie Lelouch says it's this kind of attitude that is driving most of the families who have signed up:
Lelouch: There is less family that really want to adopt a baby. There is more and more family that have already children. They say they want to do something for the world, you know.
By mid-July, the Arche de Zoe said they had recruited over 15-hundred families, who were asked to sign contracts by the end of the month. Now, they are waiting for the operation to start on the ground. Claire Rieutord says she will be very disappointed if it doesn't happen:
Claire [translation]: For the children, I think it's important that something is done. Even if it's just a drop in the bucket. Some will say it's not ethical, there are other solutions. Certainly that's true. But what are they?
The Rieutords, and all the families, were told they will receive a message by the end of October, telling them when and where they can go to meet their new children.
In Paris, this is Sarah Elzas.
This piece aired August 29, 2007, and November 2, 2007, on RFI
. Clips and an interivew about the subject aired on The State We're In
on November 2, 2007.
Producer: Sarah Elzas, edited with Tony Cross
Recorded in Paris, France, in July 2007