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Last Updated: Monday, 29 October 2007, 14:15 GMT
Ordeal of Chad children in 'kidnap' row
By Stephanie Hancock
BBC News, Abeche, eastern Chad

Dozens of young children are crowded into an open courtyard of an orphanage.

Chadian President Idriss Deby visits the children in an orphanage in Abeche on 26 October
Chadian President Idriss Deby visited the children on Friday

They are busy playing games of tag or sitting in the dust drawing in the sand - largely unaware of the storm of controversy that surrounds them.

At first sight they look like happy children, but social workers treating them say they are severely traumatised.

"It's a total traumatism, even us adults are traumatised," said a female social worker as she cradled a crying baby, one of the youngest alleged victims of a plot to kidnap children from Chad and Sudan and sell them for adoption in France.

"All the children who are crying want to go and see their parents. They've been having nightmares."

The accused charity in the case, Zoe's Ark, has denied it planned to sell the children for adoption.

More than 100 children are being cared for at the normally sleepy day-care centre in Abeche called Bakan Assalam.

Aid workers say the constant flow of visitors is disrupting the children.

Since the scandal blew up, crowds of journalists and government ministers have been pouring into the centre, keen to see for themselves the group of unwilling celebrities.

Children's stories

The children are young, many aged between just three and five.

They came to talk with our father and he allowed us to go with them
Hamsa Brahim,
boy believed to be 10 years old

Several are too young to understand what has happened but some have spoken about how they came to be with the foreign aid workers.

"Whites came and said they would enrol us in school," said Hamsa Brahim, who says he is 10 years old.

"They came to talk with our father and he allowed us to go with them. They said they would train us and that when we are grown up we would get a vehicle."

Other children have told how other foreigners offered sweets or gifts to entice them into cars.

Search for families

Aid workers are stressing that the children's testimony should be treated with caution: the group, they say, is confused and impressionable.

But the Chadian government has repeatedly described the way in which the charity Zoe's Ark collected the children as an "abduction", and say the French suspects must answer to Chadian law.

Map showing Chad and Sudan

Both the UN and the Chadian government say that a large number of the youngsters are not orphans, as Zoe's Ark has claimed, and also that many are actually from Chad, as opposed to Darfur.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has been busy interviewing the children to find out who they really are, and is hopeful they can be repatriated eventually.

"If we give the issue enough time then it won't be impossible," said the UNHCR's Annette Rehrl.

"The chief of the village would know the children who lived in the village, so once we start to get a better picture then I'm quite optimistic we will find the families."

Fallout fears

The kidnapping saga has gripped the entire nation here, and the implications of this scandal will be far-reaching.

Several aid-workers' cars in Abeche have already been pelted with stones.

"I would say this is a very, very natural and understandable reaction," said Ms Rehrl.

"The local population feels deceived - they see white people driving around in cars pretending to help them and then something like this happens and then of course everybody is looked at in a very difficult way."

The French government has also come under an uncomfortable amount of scrutiny over the matter, given that French families had been lined up to adopt the children.

It is clear there will also be implications for French nationals living here.

"France and other foreigners made us (Chad) sign a convention on children's rights," said a Chadian social worker at the orphanage.

"But to our surprise, it was the French themselves who came to take our children, even though they know the law. They didn't respect us.

"They came in silence to set up their office and kidnap our children."

Everybody will be hoping the matter will eventually die down.

But emotions are running very high, and both the French - and the humanitarians still trying to carry out their aid work in the shadow of this scandal - will be left to pick up the pieces.

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