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Future bleak for Zoe's Ark children


Adre, Chad - One year after an alleged kidnapping by a group of French aid workers, Hamza Oubali is back home and enjoying playing football like any other nine-year-old boy.

Hamza was one of 103 Chadian children who were "snatched" by the French charity Zoe's Ark.

Chad's government accused the organisation of kidnapping, while its members argued they were helping orphans from the war-ravaged Darfur region in neighbouring Sudan. It later emerged the children were not Sudanese and most still had living relatives.

"We're happy. We have our parents, family, friends and neighbours," Hamza said.

The Oubali family's house looks rundown from the outside. It's home to Hamza's mother and his five siblings.

His father left some months ago for the capital N'Djamena, where he is trying to receive some compensation that the Chadian government has promised to pay out to the families of victims, between one and three million CFA francs (about R21 540 - R64 839).

"He sent some money back twice, about 25 000 CFA. For the rest, I do odd jobs here and there. Its working out," Hamza's mother Makia said.

Faced with abject poverty and little prospect of a decent education, the Oubalis decided in October 2007 to "give" their three youngest boys to Zoe's Ark.

She explains a local man visited her offering "to feed my children and take care of their education."

"We spoke about it with my husband and we thought it was a good idea, so that they could have a future," she said.

The Adre region where they live offers little hope for young people growing up there. Bordering Darfur, an area of Sudan gripped by civil war, the area is overrun with bandits and thieves.

Hamza, and his brothers Ali, seven, and Ahamat, four, aren't going to school as there are no teachers due to the poor security situation and the low pay.

Eighty-three of the 103 Zoe's Ark children came from Adre.

Six French nationals were arrested in October last year over the scandal. They were originally sentenced to eight years of hard labour in Chad, which was later translated into prison terms on their return to France earlier in 2008.

Zoe's Ark's managing director Eric Breteau, his assistant Emilie Lelouch, doctor Philippe van Winkelberg, logistics operators Alain Peligat et Dominique Aubry and nurse Nadia Merimi were all found guilty by a Chadian court, before being pardoned on March 31, 2008 by President Idriss Deby.

The presidential pardon does not exempt them from paying the €6,3-million in damages and interest the court awarded to the victims' families, although defence lawyers for the aid workers argue that the damages are legally unenforceable.

Legal action is still ongoing in Paris against the six, who have been charged with fraud, criminal activity and assisting in the illegal immigration of foreign children.

Breteau, Lelouch, van Winkelberg and Peligat could face 10 years in jail and a €750 000 fine each.

Nadia Merimi and Dominique Aubry have been named as "supervised witnesses" by the authorities.

The French legal term is used to describe witnesses which are suspected of having some involvement in an offence, but have not yet been charged at this stage.

The six suspects have tried to carry on their lives as normal since their release from prison, but they say that have been "lynched" by the media and the authorities. Their French lawyers argue that the case is "purely political".

While Breteau realises he didn't have the all "the necessary information" before undertaking the operation, he still maintains the children should have been rescued, his lawyer Celine Lorenzon said.

But in Chad, Makia said she is disappointed that the charity could not provide the better life for her children they promised.

"We wanted the best for them. That's why we placed our trust in Zoe's Ark," she said.


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