N’DJAMENA, Chad – One of six French aid workers charged in Chad with kidnapping children told a court on Saturday that local colleagues had misled them.
Emilie Lelouch accused local intermediaries of having lied about the origins of the children whom French aid group Zoe’s Ark had been planning to take to France.
“The operation was aimed at evacuating children orphaned by the war in Darfur, absolutely not Chad,” she said on the second day of the trial. “I never had any doubt whatsoever about their Sudanese origins.”
Lelouch, five other French citizens, three Chadians and a Sudanese citizen were charged with fraud and kidnapping after authorities stopped a convoy with 103 children that the charity was planning to fly to France. Zoe’s Ark members say their intention was to help children orphaned by the war in the neighboring Sudanese province of Darfur, but subsequent investigations revealed most of the children were Chadians who had at least one parent or close relative with whom they lived.
Lelouch said she had never met any of the children’s relatives, only village chiefs who always presented the children as Sudanese. The charity workers had arranged for French families to be foster parents. “France is a country at peace. Even in Chad, these children were not safe,” Lelouch told the court.
The families have said they were not told their children were going to be taken abroad, and that the aid workers lied and said they were offering temporary local school places. A journalist accompanying the aid workers has confirmed this account, saying the French feared Sudanese authorities would try to thwart their humanitarian mission. But Lelouch denied that the aid workers had lied to families.
Another Zoe’s Ark member, Nadia Merimi Aubry, confirmed Lelouch’s account and said the two women had followed directions given by their chief of mission and took no decisions themselves.
But their accounts were contradicted by Souleymane Ibrahim Adam, a Sudanese citizen accused of complicity in kidnapping 63 of the children. He told the court that the women were lying, saying, “No, that’s false. The whites told me they had come to help poor children in Adre (a town in eastern Chad).”