Dakar — Surrounded by the 103 African children caught up in an alleged abduction plot by a French charity, Chadian president Idriss Déby appeared before photographers and journalists from around the world, standing up for the rights of Chadian children.
"These people treat us like animals," he said of the members of the association L'Arche de Zoé (Zoé's Ark). Chadian authorities arrested 17 Europeans, charging many with abduction of minors after they tried to take children they claimed were Sudanese orphans to host families in France.
L'Arche de Zoé said they were saving the children from "certain death" in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan.
According to aid agencies most of the 103 children are not orphans nor do they come from Darfur, yet aid officials are also quick to point out that the humanitarian situation is dire for millions of children in Chad.
Under Déby's rule, one in five children die before the age of five, 40 percent do not go to school, and thousands have been recruited as child soldiers.
"There are significant concerns regarding systematic infringements of the most fundamental rights of children," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a July report.
The statements by President Déby and other Chadian officials about L'Arche de Zoé's treatment of children are hypocritical according many aid workers including Chad researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), David Buchbinder. "It's hard to take them seriously when they talk about children's welfare, when they're definitely not protecting children the way they should," he said.
According to a HRW report issued in July, thousands of children under the age of 18 had been recruited into the Chadian army to serve as fighters, guards, cooks and lookouts on the frontlines of the conflict. UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) says about 7,000 children, some as young as 8 years old, have been used by rebels or armed groups.
In May, the Chadian government signed an agreement with UNICEF to demobilize child soldiers throughout the country. But Buchbinder, author of the HRW report, said that in August he witnessed "very clear, open use of children in regular Chadian government military, which is a violation of the spirit and letter of the agreement with UNICEF to demobilize, let alone international law."
The government says that any children in the Chadian army were recruited by rebel movements who have since been integrated into the government.
Both the UN and HRW dispute that claim.
Quality of life
Children's lives are being threatened all across Chad but particularly in the east near the border with Darfur, where L'Arche de Zoé allegedly took the 103 children. They live amongst armed conflict between the government and rebel groups, cross-border raids by militias from neighbouring Sudan, and inter-ethnic violence.
Many lack access to food, water and healthcare.
"Children [in eastern Chad] never have enough to eat," opposition politician Ngarlejy Yorongar told IRIN, accusing the government of neglect.
The government says it offers free emergency care in its hospitals, and has set up nutrition and health centres but Yorongar said health centres are rare, and when they exist, they lack medicines. "The government has the means to help children, but not the will," he said.
Save the Children estimates that at least half the 180,000 displaced Chadians and 230,000 Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad are children. "What the displaced, refugee and local populations have access to now is mainly provided by local NGOs and international aid agencies," said Aurélie Lamazière, of Save the Children UK's emergencies department.
"I just find the reaction to the 103 children by the French and Chadian authorities and the press slightly disproportionate compared with the tens of thousands of children who are also in need of some sort of assistance," Lamazière told IRIN.
Chad's UNICEF representative, Mariam Coulibaly Ndiaye, said the state of education in Chad was deplorable.
"When you go to a village, sometimes there is no school. When there are schools, there are not enough teachers. When communities get together to find teachers, they have not been trained," she said.
On average, 60 percent of children are in school, she said, but in some regions, especially in the east, the percentage drops to 30 percent.
Many children sit on the dirt under trees to study.
In October, a joint report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other humanitarian agencies working in eastern Chad found that the level of education among displaced children in the care of humanitarian aid agencies was higher than level of education in the areas from which they came.
Chad's education system was in the spotlight in 2005 when the French television station France 2 produced a documentary showing mistreatment and abuse of Chadian children in religious schools or madrassas.
Following its broadcast, the government said it set up a commission of inquiry. "Religious schools in the country have been inspected," the president's spokesperson, Oumar Yaya Hissein, told IRIN. "Instructors are in the process of conforming to guidelines."
But Yorongar told IRIN he recently received a call from a mother whose son had died due to physical beatings at a madrassa in a suburb of the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
"Grave child rights violations"
The UN Secretary General's July report highlighted an array of problems for Chad's five million children - more than half the population.
Among his concerns of "grave child rights violations" was the exploitation of 10-year-old girls for housework; the maiming of young boys working as livestock herders; child trafficking within Chad; and the forced and early marriage of girls.
But presidential spokesperson Yaya defended President Déby's record. "The president of the Republic has made the education, health and promotion of children his creed," Yaya said, and referred as an example to the creation of mobile schools to encourage nomadic people to enrol their children in school.
"The welfare of children is a major priority for the president."
Few international aid workers seem to agree. Regarding the L'Arche de Zoé affair, "The Chadian government's sudden interest in child welfare is more likely to be connected to its own parochial interests - vis-à-vis its connection with France and the international community - than it is with children," Human Rights Watch's Buchbinder said.
French and Chadian authorities have insisted this incident will not affect the upcoming deployment of a European Union peacekeeping force in Chad, but observers say the Chadian president may be using it to increase his influence over the way the force is deployed.
Déby is seeking new legitimacy, according to Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the French think-tank Institut Prospective et Sécurité en Europe. "When he talks of the 'sale' of children, of 'paedophilia' or of the 'sale of organs', he is looking to reposition himself on the national scene," Dupuy told the French newspaper Le Monde.
"That can give him back legitimacy in a country where he does not represent all the components of the population. But that will equally allow him to come back on the international scene, and to divert the attention that has until now been focused on the problems of rebels in the east of the country," Dupuy said.
The presidential spokesperson insists that Déby's intentions were noble. "First and foremost, he reacted as the father of a family. Next, he reacted as the president of a Republic who must protect his citizens," Yaya said.
Whatever his intentions, the L'Arche de Zoé scandal has drawn attention on Chad's children, UNICEF's Ndiaye said. "The issue of these hundred children is a real issue," she said. "[But] we all have to also turn to the millions of children, [including] the 500,000 in refugee and displaced camps in eastern Chad and the more than 50,000 refugee children in the south.
"They are everyone's responsibility."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]