Tears and confusion for charity children in Chad
29 October 2007, ABECHE (AFP) - When he left his village on the Chadian border with Sudan, Hamza says his father bade him good-bye and handed him over to the "whites".
29 October 2007
ABECHE (AFP) - When he left his village on the Chadian border with Sudan, Hamza says his father bade him good-bye and handed him over to the "whites".
"The 'nasara' (whites) told us we'd go to school and that we'd have cars when we grew up," Hamza said in Arabic, speaking at an orphanage in Abeche in eastern Chad, a temporary home for the 103 children that a French charity tried and failed to fly to France last week.
"I'm Sudanese," added Hamza, less than 10 years old, immediately drawing objections from nearby Chadian social workers.
"That's not true, he's Chadian. His parents are Chadian, we know them around here," said one worker.
Representatives from the Zoe's Ark charity insist they mounted the "Children Rescue" operation in good faith, hoping to evacuate a group of orphans whose lives were at risk in Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur just over the Chadian border.
But the unusual operation drew strong criticism from officials and aid groups and Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno has promised "severe punishment" for what he has described as a "kidnapping" or "child trafficking" operation.
International aid workers are now trying to piece together the children's stories.
"Increasingly we think that they're not orphans," said Annette Rehrl, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "They keep saying that they want to return to their parents."
UNICEF said after interviewing the children -- 88 boys and 22 girls, all in good health -- that most appear to be Chadian, not Darfuri, and that there was no evidence they were orphans.
But investigations are not over yet, Rehrl said, as representatives from aid groups carried out individual interviews with children at the orphanage.
"Most of them are between three and six years old. It's very difficult to ask three-year-olds their names and where they come from," Rehrl added. "Also, some children have already changed their names and stories."
Officials, aid workers and journalists direct their attention to the clearest speaker, the oldest of the group, 10-year-old Miriam, who has changed her story several times.
"My mother is dead and my father was in the fields. I was with my little sister. The whites offered us sweets to go with them," said the girl from Tine, a border town in northeast Chad, spekaing the Zaghawa regional language.
"She often changes the details of her story. She's trying to understand what we want her to say," said one social worker.
Dozens of children sit on a mat on the floor of the orphanage, some sobbing as they wait to talk to several visiting diplomats.
"I want to go home," Ousmane Dafallah said loudly above the cries of the surrounding children.
"I can even walk home. And if I die, it doesn't matter," he said. He left his small Chadian border village five weeks ago.
Once the latest delegation's visit is over, the crying abates. The older children play in the courtyard as social workers return to comforting the youngest ones.
Subject: French news