La Reunion: A colonial saga of cults and kidnap

The Indian Ocean outpost has much in common with France. But the story of an abducted boy and a sect which declared him its messiah has shone an unwelcome light on the island.

The Independent, UK/August 8, 2007
By Colin Randall

It is a département every bit a part of France as the Alpes-Maritimes or Dordogne, its people enjoying the same rights and responsibilities, voting in French elections and spending their euros as citizens of the European Union. But the extraordinary affair of Alexandre Thelahire, a bright, handsome boy of 12 kidnapped by a religious cult but mercifully freed by police before any harm could befall him, offers a compelling example of what sets La Réunion apart from metropolitan France.

First of all, there is the sheer distance. The island, birthplace of the former Newcastle United footballer Laurent Robert and among the favoured holiday haunts of Jacques Chirac, lies 5,600 miles away from Paris in the Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and Mauritius.

And then La Réunion has its rich mix of influences. French is the official language but Réunion creole is the most widely spoken.

Like the neighbouring island of Mauritius, the linguistic and cultural melting pot mixes ingredients from India, Vietnam, China and Africa as well as the conventional Frenchness brought to the island by les zoreilles, as locals call the army of administrators, teachers and professionals lured from mainland France by career advantages and uncluttered lifestyles.

La Réunion calls itself the Island of Treasures, its jagged landscape and micro-climates a significant lure to the more adventurous kind of holidaymaker. But visitors often remark that it seems 30 years behind Mauritius in terms of modern arrangements for tourists.

The sinister motivations that evidently lay behind the abduction of young Alexandre will persuade many that the island is rooted to the past in other ways.

Although Roman Catholicism is overwhelmingly La Réunion's dominant religion, a significant fringe of the population is drawn to groups and practices that combine religious faith, folklore and superstition. Criminal cases with origins in witchcraft and exorcism crop up from time to time in the palais de justice of the capital, St Denis.

Self-styled religious elders have been known to use their influence over susceptible followers to extort money or obtain sexual favours.

Alexandre's mother, Catherine, is related to a member of the wildly unconventional Catholic cult, Coeur Douloureux et Immaculé de Marie (The Painful and Immaculate Heart of Mary).

Four members are accused of snatching the boy from his home in St Denis last Friday evening. Mme Thelahire says she was bound and gagged along with her mother, and that other family members were threatened or assaulted, before her son was bundled into a car and driven off.

The sect's inner circle evidently sees Alexandre as the eventual successor to their guru, Juliano Verbard, 25. Only a month ago, the boy was taken from his home and forced to participate in a midnight mass with cult members before he was returned to his family the next morning.

Even before his arrest in connection with kidnapping, Verbard's days as the active leader seemed numbered by the rather serious matter of a 15-year jail sentence that awaits him for molesting and raping another child, a boy of 13, the son of devotees.

He skipped bail before the guilty verdict was reached last year, and was sentenced in his absence. Astonishingly, other cult members appear to have continued to believe in and trust the man who claimed to have witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Alexandra was more fortunate than Verbard's earlier victim. Dominique Audureau, deputy state prosecutor for La Réunion, said after police stormed the house where he was held captive at Tampon, on the south of the island, that he had not been physically abused. But underlying the menace that Verbard and his group was thought to pose, he described the guru as the "most wanted man on La Réunion" and expressed hopes that the arrest of him and a dozen or so of his followers had put a definitive end to their activities.

Alexandre himself emerged in remarkably high spirits from his 48-hour ordeal. Back with his family, he quickly regained his cheerful disposition and, when interviewed by the Journal de l'Ile de la Réunion, lapped up his moment in the spotlight, laughing, joking and even downplaying his experiences. Displaying what the French daily Le Figaro called great maturity and "incredible sang-froid", Alexandre told of twice attempting to escape after the kidnappers called at his home. "I ran downstairs but when I reached the bottom, someone caught me," he said. "They put me in the car. I managed to get out again but they caught me again and put me back inside." The gang later transferred him to the boot of a second car, burning the first.

"I was panicking," Alexandre said, "as I am asthmatic, I told myself I had to stay calm. At one point I saw a shooting star and made a wish to be able to go back to my home. I never lost hope. I always thought they'd come and find me."

A psychiatric paediatrician told Alexandre's parents that their son had shown impressive presence of mind during his period of captivity. He repeatedly asked permission to urinate, hoping that this would help police dogs pick up his scent.

But he also had moments of fear and anguish. His abductors made him change clothing, suggesting a plan to hold him for a prolonged spell and stop him being recognised from descriptions issued by police.

He knew a knife had been held at his aunt's throat during the kidnapping, that his uncle had been struck and that his mother and grandmother were tied up. Though his captors insisted that they had hurt no one, worrying thoughts passed through his mind. He did not hear his mother's emotional plea for his release on radio, but burst into tears when he caught sight of her photograph on the front page of a newspaper.

The first breakthrough for those searching for him came on Saturday when police raided the home of a cult member who quickly acknowledged his part in the kidnapping. He led officers to where the boy had been held at first, but the gang had moved on with their captive by then. But senior officers were already confident that they were closing in on them. On Sunday morning, perhaps alarmed at the deep emotion their actions had stirred on the island and beyond, the kidnappers told Alexandre that they were going to let him go, that they would give him a phone card and leave him in front of a kiosk to call home. "At that moment, the police intervened. I was afraid when they arrived because they smashed down the door and made loads of noise.

"But in my head, I shouted to myself, 'Yes' and told myself I was saved, that I was going to see everyone again."

Reunited with his mother at hospital, he was examined by a doctor who found him tired but unhurt. He was deeply unenthusiastic about spending the night under observation, not least because he wanted to watch his favourite football team, the French champions Lyon, in their televised opening game on the new season.

He watched the kick-off in the paediatric department, but was home in time for the second half to see his team secure a comfortable 2-0 win over Auxerre.

He still spent a restless night at home, sleeping with his father, Gérard, while his younger brother, Corentin, shared their mother's bed. "Sleeping with Papa made me feel safer," Alexandre explained. Hugging his mother the next evening, other family members close by, Alexandre took understandable interest in the attention his encounter with the sect had inspired, hanging on to every second of the television news coverage of his rescue.

His mother's mobile phone rang for the umpteenth time. The call was from the French President's office. "It's Sarkozy," an uncle cried. A link was established with the President, on holiday in America. Nicolas Sarkozy wanted Mme Thelahire to know of his joy at the happy outcome and his officials added that they must be told if the family needed their assistance with anything. "We were particularly touched to get a call from Monsieur le President," Mme Thelahire said.

So La Réunion was able to breathe its collective sigh of relief, and the presumed perpetrators of an obnoxious crime are behind bars.

It would be wrong to exaggerate the influence of Verbard's cult. He formed it six years ago after proclaiming the first of his visions of the Virgin Mary. But supporters are thought to number no more than about 40, paying about £13 to attend each of his meetings.

However, the relative frequency with which men make claims of special powers, and seek to prey on the gullible, keeps the authorities on the island in a state of high alert.

In 2004, a man was arrested for raping two women while supposedly freeing them of evil spirits in a ritual of exorcism. One of the victims, guilt-stricken and afraid because she had failed to become pregnant, had turned to her violator in the belief that he had the gift of magic. He wasted no time in convincing her that she was possessed by the devil and that only sexual relations with him would cleanse her. He also charged her a £200 fee.

In the same year, police found the mummified corpse of a Muslim woman. Her family had kept the body in a bedroom at their flat for 25 years, having been persuaded by an Indian guru that she would one day be restored to life. And nine family members were jailed over another exorcism, taking it in turns to strike a relative to drive the devil from his body, in the event killing him.

These events were out of the ordinary. However, the concern is that significant numbers of islanders, whatever religion they practice, are willing to seek help from witchdoctors, soothsayers and faith healers for the slightest medical ailments.

After Alexandre's first abduction, the Catholic bishop of La Reunion, Mgr Gilbert Aubry, spoke of a "certain appeal of magic to the detriment of a deepening of faith".

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