On the eve of the deployment of a joint European-African force on the Chad-Sudanese border in a modest attempt to protect long-suffering Darfur refugees, a slapdash French NGO has created a diplomatic incident. L’Arche de Zoé (a play on l’Arche de Noé, French for Noah’s ark) was caught trying to spirit 103 children out of Chad for delivery to French do-gooders. Six French humanitarians, three journalists, seven members of a Spanish cabin crew, and a Belgian pilot detained in an Abéché lockup since October 25 will be arraigned today and then hastily transferred to N’djamena because of credible threats of lynching by local Islamists.
The story has been covered with unusual diligence by French media. A crisis room was set up at the Foreign Affairs Ministry under the direction of Rama Yade, Under Secretary for Human Rights. President Sarkozy apologized to Idriss Déby, the President of Chad, and French ambassador Bruno Foucher abandoned the distraught humanitarians to the local jurisdiction.
Video footage of an informal interrogation of the suspects by the Chadian President resembled a soft version of a jihadi hostage show, except for the kidnapped children howling in the background, complete with snotty noses, tears welling up in big black eyes, and little hands hugging mugs. The plane crew in uniform and the kidnappers in humanitarian garb are seated on mats on the floor. Zoé’s Ark director Eric Breteau, looking like a naughty boy, stands face to face with the President and his scowling aides. The prisoners are led out in handcuffs. President Déby faces the camera and accuses the humanitarians of stealing African children to sell to pedophiles or, worse, to kill them and sell their organs. (He also accused them of tearing Muslim children away from their faith, but the media brushed over that one.)
Families that had contributed thousands of euros waited in vain at a provincial French airport for the precious cargo of Darfur refugees they were hoping to rescue and eventually adopt. In an initial reaction to the arrests, Zoé’s Ark spokespersons claimed they had acted in full legality, with the cooperation of French and Chadian authorities who suddenly reneged on prior agreements. Members of the association had hopped rides on French military aircraft; isn’t that proof that everyone knew and no one disapproved? French Foreign Ministry officials declare, on the contrary, that they had firmly advised the association to abandon its ill-conceived evacuation plan, which was presented openly as an end run around Chadian regulations against adoption. Other NGO’s operating in the region had filed complaints to remove their logos illegally posted on the Zoé’s Ark website.
But Breteau forged ahead under cover of a straw association—Children Rescue—through which he obtained authorizations to provide humanitarian relief to Darfur refugees in Chad. Apparently untroubled by the grammatical irregularity of “children rescue” and never doubting the connection with Zoe’s Ark, French military pilots unwittingly ferried them; local authorities allowed them to pursue their activities. No one in France has a good word to say about the grounded humanitarians…except for the Human Rights League and the Ark’s high profile lawyer, maître Gilbert Collard. Sordid revelations tumble out hourly. The kids were covered with bandages to corroborate the pretext of a “humanitarian evacuation.” The children are from Chad, not Darfur, and they are not orphans. Two of the older evacuees say their parents let them go with “some whites” who promised to send them to school and give them money, cookies, and a car when they grow up.
There is some NGO folly to the madness of this botched evacuation. Breteau, a former sales rep and volunteer fireman, branched out on his own after doing tsunami rescue work with the Red Cross. The tragic situation in Darfur fueled his megalomaniacal delusions. The extravagant ambitions announced on the Zoe’s Ark website came down to the pitiful transfer of a hundred pseudo-refugees. Now he and his accomplices are up against the harsh realities of a merciless African government and may soon be at the mercy of enraged Muslim fellow prisoners.