When Good Intentions Go Bad

New Matilda, Australia/November 27, 2007

Humanitarian organisations, French families and the Chadian public are still grappling with the spectacular failure of the charity Zoe's Ark's to evacuate supposedly Sudanese orphans out of Africa.

Eric Breteau, founder of the charity, has been described as a charismatic leader with a driving passion to make the world a better place. His profile is chillingly similar to religious cult leaders of yesteryear, responsible for the mass suicide of thousands of people. Perhaps the Zoe's Ark tragedy suggests a new breed of megalomania — rather than creating a better world by rejecting the one they were in, 'saving lives through unorthodox means' has become the new mantra.

Described as 'calm, warm and knows how to listen to others' by one of the doctors enlisted to help, Breteau was a born leader. He displayed passion, courage and strength — making those he met willing to be led. The hundreds of French families who gave thousands of dollars to the charity all speak of Breteau's charisma. For them, the operation to evacuate orphans out of Africa was courageous rather than crazy.

The Rieutords were among the many who were seduced by Breteau and his girlfriend Emilie Lelouch. 'Eric and Emilie side by side — him so strong her so pretty — and both of them so audacious,' was Jean Rieutord's description of them.

Such descriptions echo those of religious cult leaders, similarly known for being charismatic, empathetic and visionary. Their ability to understand an individual's vulnerability, and to make the impossible seem achievable through collaboration, was crucial to their success.

Founded in 2005, the Zoe Ark's name comes from two sources. It is partly named after a small girl Breteau saved in Indonesia, who had lost her family during the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. And the biblical reference to Noah's Ark symbolises a future for children such as Zoe.

Zoe's Ark wanted to give children a better life and, in some ways, Breteau saw himself as their messiah. Saviours need followers and Breteau found people who shared his compassion for poverty-stricken children and who were willing to make a difference. Many of the French families who got involved with Zoe's Ark were driven by the idea of saving an orphan, some even wanting to adopt.

Adoption is a relatively recent phenomenon in France — it was only in 1966 that adopted children were considered fully part of their adoptive families — and adoption procedures are long and costly, with more demand than children needing to be adopted.

As a consequence, international adoption has steadily increased. In 2005, out of 5000 French adoptions, 80 per cent were of children from overseas. Families who were disillusioned with the bureaucratic French system found hope in Zoe's Ark.

Earlier this year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner declared the Sudanese region of Darfur a top priority for international aid. 'We must talk about the situation facing displaced people and refugees in [neighbouring] eastern Chad, it's urgent,' said Kouchner while visiting the area in June. Through their political leaders, the French public were made aware of the desperate situation in Sudan, and Zoe's Ark capitalised. For Breteau and his followers, it was more important to act quickly and think about the consequences later.

Breteau warned his followers that their mission to evacuate Sudanese orphans was likely to be criticised by the larger NGOs. This made the families even more susceptible to manipulation. He advised them to act with discretion, cautioning them not to speak to the media. By creating an 'us versus them' mentality, suggesting that outsiders would not understand the intricacies of the project, Breteau successfully gained the trust of the families. It was their duty to save the children, against all odds.

In September, Breteau organised a meeting in Valence, in south-eastern France, to announce that the operation was underway. 'There were nearly 600 of us in the room,' said Jean Rieutord. 'We were sitting next to academics, a public servant working for the Senate, serious people. It was a dynamic group. Everything seemed possible.'

While the end result of rescuing Sudanese orphans and giving them shelter was at the root of Breteau's actions, everything that happened between his initial visit to Darfur in April and his arrest at the end of October is a tangled web of lies.

Zoe's Ark tried to make themselves appear credible by publishing the logos of other international organisations on their website. They prepared legal documents for participating French families to sign, in turn making themselves appear legitimate. Dominique Aubry, among those who were arrested at the end of October, was told that he was helping set up a children's camp, according to his niece Anne-Sophie Lagniel.

Leaders of the charity told the French military that they were providing on-ground support to children in need. Similarly, they received food supplements and equipment from UNICEF, who were unaware of the plan to airlift the children out of Africa.

The Chadian Government was informed that the charity, known in the east Chad city of Abeche as 'Children Rescue,' wanted to establish an orphanage near the Darfur border. Even though adoption is illegal in Sudan and Chad, Zoe's Ark convinced tribal elders and Chadian families to hand over their children by saying they would be given an education in Abeche, while the children were told that they would be returned to their parents.

The children were given fake wounds to make them look like war casualties. Zoe's Ark told the Spanish airline Girjet that the children had been injured and needed medical treatment in France.

Nearly all participants say that they would not have helped charity members had they known the operation was to airlift children out of Chad.

Did Breteau regret that his friends had been arrested? 'No, they knew the consequences,' was his response.

Between 1978 and 2000, thousands of people involved in religious cults died in acts of mass suicide. Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple cult, wanted to create a socialist utopia. In 1977, he and his 900 followers relocated to Guyana, South America, to turn this dream into a reality. The dream became a nightmare and all over the world, members of Heaven's Gate, the Order of the Solar Temple and the Ugandan Doomsday Cult also made headline news. The stories are chilling, yet cult members believed they were making the right choice. What started as a moderate desire for a better world became a zealous, fervent vision that spiraled dangerously out of control.

A lot has changed since then, yet some people remain disillusioned with society remains and for them, Breteau's vision would seem plausible. Globalised travel, the internet and increased awareness of climate change, natural disasters and humanitarian issues have made us believe that it is up to us, as individuals, to make the world a better place. Rather than trying to find an escape as the cult members did, we want solutions.

Religious cults may not have the same resonance today, but the desire for a better world remains the same — perhaps the gap has been filled by humanitarian activism.

'To us it's really important to save lives,' said Lelouch in a radio interview at the end of August. 'We don't know what happens later. And sorry, but we don't care.' For Breteau and Lelouch, the genocidal atrocities in Darfur remain the ultimate evil — their own actions were simply an attempt to save the victims of war.

For Breteau and Lelouch, taking the children to France was a ticket to education and prosperity rather than a wasted life trying to survive in a war zone. Considerations such as integration into French society — where immigration remains an ongoing, unresolved issue — psychological trauma due to enforced relocation and the long-term effects on the children were not thought through.

The future of DIY humanitarianism depends on those willing to fight for a cause — no matter the consequences. The sad moral to the Zoe's Ark affair is that sometimes, acting with courage and devotion is not enough.

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