ABECHE, Chad — Times for study, dance, lunch and naps have their place on a schedule posted on a pillar of a villa where a French charity once cared for children in this dusty town near Darfur's border.
But while the schedule covers the week of Oct. 22, it makes no mention of plans by the charity known as Zoe's Ark for an evacuation.
On Oct. 25, Chadian police stopped a convoy of all-terrain vehicles on its way to the airport with 103 children the charity described as Darfur orphans it wanted to take to safety in France. The French Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claims the children were from Darfur or even orphans. Six Zoe's Ark workers have been jailed in Chad on kidnapping charges since the convoy was stopped, and their lawyer said Monday the case had been referred to a criminal court for trial.
Zoe's Ark continues to maintain it was driven by compassion, helping orphans of the rebellion in Sudan's Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and from where thousands have been forced to flee their homes since a rebellion flared in early 2003. Interviews in eastern Chad and France and a review of events as they unfolded on two continents raise questions about Zoe's Ark's methods, if not its motives. The group's members lacked experience dealing with children and conflict in Africa, and idealism may have clouded judgment.
Aid workers and others in Abeche say Zoe's Ark workers said nothing of plans for an evacuation, instead representing operations here as a kind of no-frills boarding school and clinic for children touched by conflict. Zoe's Ark officials acknowledge they took steps that might appear intended to deceive — such as operating under another name in Chad — but only as a safety precaution.
Internet appeal went out in April
Outside Chad, Zoe's Ark was forthright. It launched an Internet appeal in April for help and host families for an "operation to evacuate orphan children from Darfur." French journalists were invited to cover the rescue.
The French Foreign Ministry was contacted by families with questions about the operation, and issued public statements in May, June and August warning French families to be wary.
On Aug. 10, France's child protection police questioned Eric Breteau, a volunteer fireman who founded Zoe's Ark in 2005 to aid children affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami. The Darfur operation appears to have been the group's first effort in Africa.
Some of the children Zoe's Ark had planned to take to France told The Associated Press they arrived at the group's compound in Abeche during the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan. They remember celebrating the end of the fast in Abeche. That would have been a month or so after Breteau was questioned in France.
After prosecutors in France received a tip children were about to be flown to France, French judicial officials opened a formal inquiry targeting the leaders of Zoe's Ark on Oct. 24. French officials also alerted Chadian police.
A day after the French judicial probe was opened, the Zoe's Ark convoy was on the road before dawn. The plan appears to have been for the 103 children to have demanded asylum once in France.
Chadians tipped authorities
Several Chadians working with Zoe's Ark, apparently unaware until then of plans to take the children to France, called police and local government officials on their mobile phones as the convoy headed to the Abeche airport, said Ramadan Hamat, a Chadian human rights worker based in Abeche.
"They thought that if the children left the country then people would blame them for the children's kidnapping," Hamat told The Associated Press. Two Chadians who had worked with Zoe's Ark refused to speak with the AP.
In a 16-page letter sent to French media at the end of November from detention in Chad, Zoe's Ark leader Breteau said that however it may have seemed, his Oct. 25 convoy was not a hasty effort to pre-empt French officials or evade Chadian authorities.
Breteau said Zoe's Ark initially went to Sudan, but determined that the government there was making humanitarian work impossible — a charge U.N. and other groups have made against Khartoum. The group called itself Children's Rescue in Chad in part because it believed it was being watched by Sudanese authorities, Breteau wrote.
The new name, though, would make it difficult to link the group to the Zoe's Ark Darfur campaign being publicized in France. In France, the judicial officials said, Breteau told them his group's subsidiary in Chad was a separate American organization. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The U.N. frowns on sending children abroad without their families and has since denounced Zoe's Ark. U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said that U.N. refugee agency staff helped set up tents for Children's Rescue — one can still be seen in the group's Abeche compound — but was unaware of what Zoe's Ark was planning.
‘This organization ... fooled everybody'
"This organization had fooled everybody," Okabe told journalists in New York.
Jean Francois Basse of the U.N. children's agency said that most parents or relatives of the 103 children had been told that the French group was setting up a school in Abeche and was going to educate their children there.
Basse said of the 103 children, 65 have a close relative or parent who has come forward to claim them.
"All have said that they accepted to send away their children on the only condition that the children were going to go to school in Abeche," Basse told the AP. "They wanted to give a chance to these children."
None of the children or relatives were Darfur refugees nor Chadians displaced by a two-year rebellion in eastern Chad, Basse said. But they live in villages along the Chad-Sudan border and feel the effects of conflict, he said.
Christine Peligat, whose husband Alain Peligat is among the six Zoe's Ark workers held for trial in Chad, told The Associated Press she remains convinced the children were Sudanese and orphans. She also said that the group never told the parents that their children were going to get an education in Abeche.
"That was certainly the village chiefs or local Chadians who said that to the parents" when they went searching for orphans on behalf of Zoe's Ark, Peligat told the AP from France.
Charity workers stage hunger strike
Last week, the Zoe's Ark six embarked on a protest hunger strike, saying they had been tried and convicted in the media and would not be dealt with fairly in Chadian courts.
Meanwhile, a judicial probe in France was expanded Oct. 29 to suspicion of "direct or indirect aid for the entry of illegal aliens to France," and again on Nov. 8 to include possible fraud.
The children now are being cared for at an orphanage in Abeche while local officials and international aid groups try to find their relatives.
Boys wearing shirts emblazoned with the names of international soccer stars play with a ball in the courtyard, while girls sit under trees.
"Here we are better treated compared to the other place," said Hamza, 10, referring to the Zoe's Ark compound where he said he did not like the strict schedule and never got to see his parents. Hamza says that his father has been to see him three times since the Zoe's Ark operation was closed down.
"I want to return to my parents," Hamza says.
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