French charity workers charged with kidnapping African children acted out of idealism, journalist says



By Elizabeth Ryan

PARIS – A journalist who accompanied French charity workers charged with kidnapping 103 African children criticized the group’s methods Monday, and his documentary showed the workers making little effort to verify the youngsters were orphans from Darfur.

But Marc Garmirian defended the charity’s intentions, saying its members were convinced they were evacuating orphans from the Darfur conflict in western Sudan. Other aid workers who interviewed the children last week said most of them had been living with adults they considered to be their parents and came from villages along the Chadian-Sudanese border.

Seventeen Europeans – including nine French citizens – were arrested in Chad on Oct. 25 when the Zoe’s Ark charity was stopped from flying the children to Europe.

Seven of them – Garmirian, two other journalists and four Spanish flight attendants – were released Sunday and flew home with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met with Chad’s president.

Garmirian said the charity’s “amateurism had dramatic consequences for the children.” But he said the children were never in such danger that he felt he should put down his camera to intervene.

“They remained convinced of the legitimacy of the mission that they gave themselves, that is to free orphans from the war in Darfur,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He told French radio the aid workers were not child traffickers.

Garmirian’s documentary, aired Sunday on French television channel M-6, showed one charity worker haphazardly screening children brought by tribal elders to the group’s center in eastern Chad. Speaking through translators, Emilie Lelouch did not request details or ask for even the most basic documentation or verification.

Asked if she could be mistaken on basic facts – such as whether the children were Chadian or Sudanese or whether they were orphans – she readily acknowledged she could be wrong.

When Garmirian asked if the group was concerned about violating international laws, Lelouch said, “What laws?” However, Garmirian later said that Lelouch had “moments of doubt” about information they received from their Chadian intermediaries.

In other scenes in the documentary, the charity workers wrapped the children’s heads and limbs in gauze bandages, dousing some of them with iodine to make them look, in the words of one worker, like “war casualties.”

The footage came to an abrupt end when Chadian authorities detained the charity workers.

Zoe’s Ark maintains its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine the children it was taking were orphans. It said it intended to place them with host families in Europe.

Garmirian said determining the children’s nationality would be difficult because many were too young to remember if they had ever been attacked or whether they were Sudanese or Chadian.

Thousands of Darfur refugees have fled to Chad to escape four years of fighting that has left 200,000 people dead and displaced more than 2.5 million.

Marie-Agnes Peleran, a journalist for France-3 television who also accompanied the mission, said she thought the operation happened too quickly for them to be certain whether or not the children were actually orphans. Peleran was also freed Sunday.

The group’s biggest mistake, Peleran told France-3, was believing that “the end justified the means without thinking that the means change the end.”

Six workers for Zoe’s Ark remained detained on kidnapping charges. The Belgian pilot, two Spanish co-pilots, and a crew member of the plane that was hired to fly the children from Chad face accessory charges.

The pilots were to be questioned Monday, according to their Chadian lawyer.

Chadian President Idriss Deby said the 75-year-old Belgian pilot had health problems and that his case would be treated as a humanitarian matter. Belgium’s Foreign Ministry said Monday it sent an envoy to Chad to look into his case.

Associated Press writer Tom Maliti in N’Djamena, Chad, contributed to this report.