A former fireman and a circus performer have been sentenced to two years in prison for attempting to smuggle 103 children out of Chad claiming they were Darfur war orphans and then hand them to would-be adoptive parents in France who had paid large sums to “save” children in crisis.
Eric Bréteau, who founded the charity Arche de Zoé (Zoe’s Ark), and his partner Emilie Lelouch were described by a Paris judge as “megalomaniacs”, which caused them to laugh as they sat in court.
They had not been present at their trial in December, preferring to stay in South Africa where they ran a guest house, tourist flight tours and a circus troop. But they unexpectedly arrived in court for sentencing amid speculation that an international arrest warrant would have been issued.
Bréteau and Lelouch were arrested with 13 others in October 2007 at Abéché airport, on Chad’s eastern border with Sudan. Local authorities had become suspicious after a charter plane with a Spanish airline crew landed at the remote airport.
Police pounced when the French charity workers arrived and tried to board with a crowd of children ranging from toddlers to 10-year-olds who were wearing fake bandages to make them look ill and who had not been declared to officials.
Dozens of families, mainly French, had paid between €2,800 and €6,000 to the charity to house a child from wartorn Darfur. The would-be parents, recruited on online adoption forums, waited at an airport east of Paris with warm clothing for the children, having prepared bedrooms and new lives for them.
An investigation by Unicef and the Red Cross found that at least 85% of the children still had living parents and were from Chad, not Sudan. The charity workers were arrested and sentenced to eight years’ forced labour in Chad, before being transferred to a Paris jail and then pardoned by Chad’s president, opening the way for a French trial.
The saga, which embarrassed France and led an NGO to warn against “humanitarian mercenaries”, was described by one nurse as “surrealist from the start” and is being made into a film. During the trial, Isabelle Rile, a doctor who visited the charity’s camp in Abéché, said she had realised that the children were almost all from the local region in Chad.
She said one day the children started crying and a girl asked for her mother. The children had thought they had been brought to Abéché to go to school, she said. When she confronted Bréteau and another doctor, she told the court, “they told me the children were unhappy, that they were in Africa”.
She said the children were in good health, “there was no medical catastrophe at all”, they were “psychologically well” but found themselves “without their families”. Another nurse described the children as “wanting to go home”.
Bréteau, a father of three who set up the charity in 2005 to help tsunami victims, claimed he wanted to highlight international inaction on Sudan and “save Darfur”.
He was described in court by one nurse as an “all-powerful manipulator” and accused of “playing on the [adoptive] families’ desires for children”. One lawyer described Bréteau’s hold over the other charity workers as “the almost messianic message by a veritable guru”. A witness said Bréteau was an “idealist prepared to dump everyone in the shit”.
Bréteau and Lelouch were found guilty of acting illegally as an adoption intermediary, facilitating illegal entry into France, and fraud with regard to the families who paid them. They were taken into custody, and said they would appeal.
Four other defendants, including three charity workers and a journalist who accompanied them on the Chad trip, were given suspended sentences. One defence lawyer argued they had been “blinded by kind sentiment”.
I have no words for how incredibly heinous the actions these people took to exploit these Chadian families are, nevermind the French would-be adoptive ‘parents’. And a two year prison sentence? Only?! For human trafficking across international borders, illegal border crossing, fraud, kidnapping and child smuggling (I’m no legal expert so forgive me if I’m just using colloquial synonyms). They didn’t even have the decency to attend their trial and I see nothing about their behaviour that indicates an ounce of remorse. Just goes to show how little the worth of African lives are. Even if there are 103 of them.
White saviorism once again rears its ugly head in a situation which I’m sure is far from unique and gets a mere slap on the wrist. I mean, the president of Chad actually pardoned them. This man has been president since 1990. He needs to take a lesson from the current Pope’s book and move on. He clearly does not know how to use his power effectively.
Oh and, this situation is being made into a film. Not sure by who but I can’t wait to see who they cast as the French couple since it’s probably going to focus mostly on their lives.