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Testimony of the Belgian pilot of Operation Arche de Zoé / Children Rescue in Chad

(BRUSSELS2, exclusive) Repatriated in an Embraer frombelgian army, Saturday, November 10, Jacques Wilmart, the pilot of the small plane who worked with Children Rescue/ Zoe's Ark (French association which became known during the Tsunami) was kind enough to speak to me (on the telephone) for several minutes, from his hospital bed, last Tuesday.

Is the " Check-in pilots bar », a small bar in Waterloo, in the suburbs of Brussels, where it all started, he says. The bar owner puts him in contact with a young pilot who must fly a small plane, a Cherokee six, from Ogades to N'Djamena. Piper PA-32 for Children Rescue, an NGO that needs it for its operations " medical evacuation ».

The man doesn't hesitate much. Since his retirement in 1993 from Sabena, the Belgian national airline - he was notably the president of the pilots' association when Pierre Godfroid was its CEO - has flown in all directions, first in Asia on passenger planes. , then in cargo freight, finally for NGOs in Africa. “Looking at the sky from below is painful for me ", even at 74 years old, he says. And the project of helping children in Darfur motivates him. But, for him, it's Children Rescue that calls him, not Zoe's Ark; it was only at the last moment that he learned of this name.

In Chad, he begins by waiting.

« I wait in N'Djamena for three days to obtain authorization to travel. And it was not until October 6 that I finally took off, with three firefighters from Argenteuil on board. We have a technical problem. The oil increases the pressure too much. I'm coming back to N'Djamena. And finally we don't take off again until the next day, October 7 ". Direction Abéché. There he 'ddiscovers the medical branch of Children Rescue, kids on a drip, pampered, fed, learning to laugh and play again ". His mission: to lead little Piper to pick up the children in the far reaches of Chadian territory, on the border with Sudan. All these bush tracks were on the Sudanese border, on Chadian territory, very close to the rebel zones. One day near the rebel zone, we were unable to land because the runway was under mortar fire. Home "never crossed the border” he assures. The operation “ is done in broad daylight ».

The Chadians were aware of all the movements.

« Every day, I filled out a flight plan, approved by the air traffic control of the airportt from Abéché, specifying the number of people on board and the manifest (the names of the passengers) ". He also denies that there could have been the same kidnapping of children, having been “ witness on several occasions, notably in Biltin, the way Emilie Lelouch went about it (Eric Breteau's partner, who directed the entire operation), asking village chiefs and translators if they were indeed orphans ". In any case, the operation was carried out in broad daylight. “ Eric Breteau told me to wear the Parisian firefighter uniform (NB: Eric Breteau is a volunteer firefighter in Argenteuil, in the Paris region), with Children Rescue marked behind us. Because I don't want to give the impression of a secret sect, he explained to me. We walked around everywhere with “Children Rescue” t-shirts, stickers on the plane, on the 4x4s. ».

The affair actually really started to get out of hand on October 21.

“We were in Adré. The 4X4s arrived with a bang. “We were stopped by the police and then released” they told me, start the engine, and we go again”. In Abéché in the evening, meeting at the camp. This is where Wilmart discovers another part of the operation, the evacuation of the children to France, Zoé's Ark and the foster families.

The return is improvised. On the 23rd, Eric said to me: “ Look, we're ending the mission. I don't need you as a bush pilot anymore. Go to N'djamena. You put together the flight plan. And you come back to Chartres (with the Piper). (…) We bring forward the evacuation of the children to 25. “It is better to save 103 than 200 ". He told me : " They were taken out of Darfur. We have host families in France. They will welcome them during the war in Darfur.”

NB: Coincidentally, Irish generals Nash and French generals Ganascia, commanding the future European military peacekeeping operation, Eufor Chad RCA, begin on the 21st in N'Djamena a visit which will last until the 24th passing through Abêché, Goz Beïda and Iriba, before the Central African Republic

The return flight plan.

At the Novotel in N’Djamena, “ on the 24th, I learned at the last moment of the arrival of the rented plane, a Spanish crew plane, with Icelandic registration. The registration did not match. Due to a technical problem, the original plane could not come. They have not reintroduced a request, this is common” in the airline industry. (…) I personally witnessed the development of the (Boeing) flight plan, the day before departure. It was mentioned: Number of people on board = 7 (commander, crew), remarks: OPS Children Rescue, EVASAN. Number of people on board: 119. Destination: Vatry. » For children's names, “it was in Abéché that the head of mission established the manifesto with all the names of the children”. (...)

Three days to wait...to be arrested.

“We’re going to refuel (for the small plane). We had to leave for Agades. I then discovered that they (Eric Breteau and the others from l'Arche) were all arrested. So, I decide to stay. I didn't want to leave the impression that I was leaving like a thief. That was too easy. » He then decides to leave the plane there. Accompanied by the young Belgian pilot, however, he decides to change hotels. “ At the Novotel, there were a lot of French soldiers” and registers at Le Méridien “ under (his) name. (...) I am convinced that we can be arrested quickly. In fact, nothing. As if they were waiting for me to leave like a thief. Three days pass, I stay there. »

A dragging arrest.

On the morning of the 28th, “the “little Belgian” (who had decided to leave and found a ticket) was packing these packages. Commissioner Assan asked me at reception: “ Commander Wilmart, you are under arrest. Don’t even ask the “little Belgian” who he is. He leaves it. At the exit I see Josselyn Grange, from Le Figaro, who is wondering why he is arrested. He is very worried, shocked, I say “question the journalist first, he must leave”. I remained interrogated for 6 hours, until after sunset I slept. »

In prison.

« We were in an open-air prison, among 20 common law convicts. There were criminals there, motorcycle traffickers. It was said that I had been extorted. But we need to see what this term means in Africa. Above all, this means contributing to the solidarity of prisoners. They actually took everything that was in my pockets. But I am amazed at the organization of the inmates. » This is the principle: “ There is a leader, we accept you. And you contribute to our good understanding. Well, I gave a little more than the entrance fee. But we won't touch one of your hairs. I was mostly eaten by mosquitoes. Around 23 p.m., a sort of Fulani prince, in a blue djellaba – I know it's not the region but that's the impression he gave – said to me “you don't belong here. He puts me in a cell, alone. I hadn't eaten. They offered me water that was so disgusting that I didn't drink it because I was afraid of getting sick. »

New interrogation

On the 29th, transfer to the judicial police. New interrogation. " I saw a general who told me “I am convinced in good faith. But we put you in a real mess. (…) Overall, we were treated very well. We all ended up in the remand center, treated rather better than average, even if it was hard. » Staff from the French embassy in Chad and the French army passed every day, the former to bring food, the latter for medical care. They were very warm. “ I was physically exhausted, from the heat, from diarrhea. I was transferred to the Adji Kossei medical center in N'damena. »

Charged in Chad with “complicity in child kidnapping”, he rejects this term and insisted on recording in the minutes of the Chadian judge who questioned him that he “ transported children, not abducted them ". Placed on bail, he remains at the disposal of Chadian justice, of course, but " the Belgian authorities will never allow me to leave in this state he pleads. “I have the good conscience of the innocent. » This African adventurer also wants to remind us of a truth, the African reality. “ You know when you are on the threshold of poverty, women prefer to entrust their child, in the hope that he will have a chance to survive. ". As for the Chadian authorities, he does not want to say more. " To them, we were manna falling from heaven. 17 hostages. It allowed them to use pressure to obtain certain advantages.”

If there were errors in the operation, he is aware of them. But he doesn't regret anything. “I would fight to the end for people who have been smeared. I can imagine that they were naive, that they tried to shake things up, that they violated certain rules. As for going back to Africa, why not, "on rescue missions of which I am convinced, life is ahead".

Courage and cowardice. Jacques Wilmart would like to thank the French, who assisted him, as well as the Belgian authorities, who “ acted much more discreetly without panache » but just as effectively. On the other hand, he does not have harsh enough words about those who, from a distance, criticized them and, above all, let go. Rama Yade, the (French) Secretary of State for Human Rights, a “false diamond in a very beautiful case”, particularly, stuck in her throat: “ That a member of government would allow such baseness revolts me. » ' like all the others who followed behind (such as the European Commission). Just as the curious jealousy of certain NGOs saddens us. “ On the tarmac at Abeché, next to superb planes for the World Food Program or Unicef, with my little Piper, we looked like poor children. And, yet, we acted.”

(Interviewed by Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

For another testimony from a doctor from Argenteuil (see Le Monde)

Photo credits: xx, Ema, Arche de Zoé

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).