The Mail reporter who revealed the reason Ireland had to end its adoption agreement with Vietnam returns to the country…and makes another deeply disturbing discovery; SPECIAL REPORT.
Byline: by Simon Parry in Vietnam
The Mail reporter who revealed the reason Ireland had to end its adoption agreement with Vietnam returns to the country…and makes another deeply disturbing discovery HIGH in the jagged limestone peaks that mark Vietnam’s border with Laos, Cao Thi Thu squats on the stone floor of her family’s hut, staring at me with a mixture of hope and desperation as she pleads: ‘Please help to bring my daughters back home.’
It is more than three years since Thu says officials came to her village and offered her the chance to send her daughters Cao Thi Lan, 3, and Cao Thi Luong, 8, to be educated in the provincial capital
. Instead, they were sold for thousands of euros for adoption in Europe and the U.S.
Clutching the only photographs she has of the girls – ironically taken at the children’s home
to send out to prospective adoptive parents – it is clear that the pain of separation is as sharp today as it was on the day she last saw them.
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‘I am sad and I am very worried,’ the 35-year-old said. ‘I have no information about where they are or even which country they are in. I don’t even know if they are alive or dead.
‘I don’t understand it. Why would anyone want to take away another mother’s children? If I could speak to the foreigners who have them, I would beg them to please give my daughters back to me. I miss them so very much.’
Lan and Luong were among 13 children taken away from Vietnam’s smallest and most backward ethnic minority – the Ruc hill tribe – and then sold in return for fees of more than E7,000 per child. A formal police investigation has been launched into their claims but villagers fear it will be a whitewash and are desperate for foreign governments to intervene to help bring their children home.
It’s been three months since I first travelled to Vietnam to cover the adoption story for the Irish Daily Mail. I had been tasked to investigate the circumstances surrounding the continued collapse of the bilateral agreement with Ireland.
When the story was published in October revealing that a baby broker in Lang Son had offered me a child for $10,000 (E6,950) against a backdrop of endemic corruption where the orphanages seemed to see little – if any – of the $7,500 (E5,200) cost of Vietnamese adoption.
The backlash was ferocious. I was accused of having sensationalised, if not outright invented, the story. But our revelations were validated by a subsequent Unicef report, published in November. It found that the numbers being put up for adoption are influenced by foreign demand and that adoption agencies operating in Vietnam were essentially securing children by offering the most money.
Now, on my third visit to find out what happens to the mothers whose children are adopted, I have met with serious resistance.
Before our meeting with Thu, we tried to drive to neighbouring Yen Hop village where the pictures of the children are kept. We were refused permission to enter by the police and taken to a military base close to the Laos border where we were held for questioning and then ordered to leave. We drove back in the direction of the provincial capital but were able to escape the officials long enough to interview Thu in her home in On village before a police officer caught up with us.
Thu and a group of Ruc villagers affected by the scandal sneaked me into her house to tell me the parents’ story and to plead for help in getting their children back.
The Ruc were until recently cave dwellers. They were discovered living in caves in wild terrain in Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park near the border with Laos. Only 34 of them remained when the country’s Communist officials relocated them to two-room, stone huts in a cluster of four remote villages in the late 1950s.
Half a century on, the Ruc people remain largely cut off from civilisation along a winding dirt track in a military zone on the edge of the national park, where they survive on hunting, subsidence farming, donated second-hand clothes and monthly rice subsidies from the provincial government.
Local officials told us their farming supports them for only four months of the year. For the remaining eight months, they rely on food aid.
Now numbering 500, the shambolic
Ruc community has the air of a rootless and dependent people. Children run wild in ragged clothes and men stumble barefoot around the village, their faces flushed red from rice wine even at 10 in the morning.
People in nearby Vietnamese villages view them disdainfully
as primitives. ‘We’ve heard the stories about the children being stolen but what does it matter?’ one man told us dismissively as we made our way to the mountain villages. ‘They have babies like chickens in any case.’
It was in September 2006 when officials from Quang Bing province’s capital, Dong Hoi, visited the tiny tribe and offered families what they said was a golden opportunity to give their children a better life.
Their children, aged between two and nine, would be homed, fed and schooled at a children’s social welfare centre in Dong Hoi for free then returned home when their education and vocational training was complete, they were told.
The parents of 13 children – most of them illiterate – agreed and were driven to Dong Hoi with their children where they signed consent forms placing them in the care of the local authority. It was only when they later travelled to visit their children that they were discovered they had been adopted overseas.
‘Those men lied to me,’ said Thu, who has three other children. ‘They said the children would return to the village when they finished school. They said they wanted to help us to give our children a better life. But they sold them as if they were livestock.’
The parting proved more painful than Thu expected – and when she went to visit her daughters at the children’s home in the Lunar New Year holiday of 2007, some four months after they were sent there, she made a pitiful
attempt to take them home. ‘They looked well but they missed me very much and they were very homesick
. They said to me: “Mummy, please take us home,” she recalled.
‘I couldn’t bear to see them so sad so I decided to take them home. I took them by the hands and led them out of the children’s home towards the bus stop. I was going to buy us all tickets to go back home – but the security guards stopped me and told me I couldn’t take them away.
‘The officials at the children’s home said I had signed papers and I had to leave them. They said it was in the best interests of the girls and if I cared about them, I would do as they said. I was crying but I believed them and I went home alone.’
It would be almost a year later before Thu visited her daughters again. When she arrived, she was taken to an office and told that both girls had been adopted by families from overseas.
Thu says she furiously confronted the head of administration at the children’s home, Pham Khac Manh.
‘He just kept telling me they been adopted by foreigners,’ she said. ‘He couldn’t even tell me which country they had gone to or whether they were together or apart. I said. “How can you do this without my permission as their mother?”
‘Mr Manh calmly told me: “Your daughters have gone and you must accept it. There is nothing you can do. You should go home.”
‘He gave me 200,000 dong (E7.50) and told me to get the bus.’
News of the children’s fate spread quickly around the Ruc community villages as other parents travelled to the provincial capital to find that their sons and daughters too had been sent overseas for adoption.
All were told that the papers they signed gave complete authority to provincial officials. The case was legally watertight and protesting was useless, they were told.
‘Terrible stories and rumours went around the villages that just made us more worried and more panicky,’ Thu said. ‘Some people said that the good-looking ones had been sold to foreigners and the less attractive ones had been sold and killed for their organs.’
Although she has no idea where either Lan or Luong are, or whether they are together or apart, Thu accepts that her daughters may be living a much better life overseas than if they had stayed in Vietnam. But Thu, who has three other children including a five-month-old baby boy, is fiercely and defiantly insistent that their place is at home.
‘I would never have given up my daughters if I had known that they were going to be adopted overseas,’ she said.
Asked to describe the two girls, she fought back tears. ‘They are good girls. They are polite and well behaved
. They play well with their friends. I am afraid that they will forget all about their mother, especially the younger one.’
Thu’s only photographs of her daughters are in a bundle of papers inside a plastic bag tied up beneath her wooden bed. With the torn and dog-eared photographs are the documents from the children’s home in Dong Hoi. They state that the girls will be cared for and educated by the provincial authority in the children’s centre but also says they will be returned to their families when their schooling is complete.
On the documents, the names of both girls have been changed from Cao – a hill tribe name – to Tran, a common Vietnamese name. The date of birth of the older girl Luong has also been changed from 1998 to 2000, making her appear two years younger. ‘I didn’t read the papers properly and I only found out about the changes in the names and the age later,’ said Thu. ‘Now I think they probably did it to make them harder to trace and to make Luong easier to adopt.’
While officials have allegedly appealed to the families to halt their complaints, they have persisted in the face of what they claim have been threats and intimidation, demanding not compensation but the return of their children.
Cao Xuan Chuyen, 38, who saw three nieces and one nephew taken away from his village On, said: ‘The parents are very determined and will not give up. They will keep fighting to get their children back.’
At the provincial capital Dong Hai, Le Thi Thu Ha, director of the children’s home where the 13 children were taken to, confirmed that a police investigation had been launched into the circumstances in which the Ruc children were adopted overseas.
Miss Ha, who recently replaced former director Nguyen Tien Ngu who handled the adoptions, said one of the children had been adopted by a family in the U.S. while the remainder had been adopted in Italy. However, she insisted: ‘All of the legal documents were in order. It was approved by the provincial ministry of justice and the provincial social welfare centre and it was done with the consent of the Ruc parents.
‘The local police started investigating the case a few months ago. We expect the investigation to be complete and the results announced in the first quarter of 2010.’
Pham Khac Manh, the head of administration at the children’s home, told us by phone that he was aware of the case of the Ruc children. He refused to comment further and declined repeated requests to explain his role and his dealings with the Ruc parents.
The two main orphanages for Irish adoptions in recent years have been Lang Son on the Vietnam-China border and Thai Nguyen in northern Vietnam. Visits to both by the Irish Daily Mail confirmed that they draw a large percentage of children from hill tribe communities.
Danish anthropologist Peter Bille Larsen worked for a number of years among the Ruc community and spoke at length to the families about the missing children last year.
He sent emails, documents and photographs to both the U.S. and Italian embassies in Hanoi
in early 2008 asking them to investigate. However, no representative from either embassy has visited.
In his report, Larsen said: ‘It seems likely that a legal loophole was used involving illiterate ethnic minority parents signing over all rights to their children, allowing (orphanage) officials to have the children adopted without the consent of the parents – this despite official letters from social authorities specifying the return of the children upon the improvement of living conditions
The anthropologist called for action to allow the children to be returned to their families.
But when the Irish Daily Mail approached the Italian and U.S. embassies in Hanoi to ask about the case of the Ruc children, the U.S. embassy said it knew nothing of it and the Italian embassy
confirmed it had not directly investigated the alleged child thefts, saying it had no power to do so.
Italian charge d’affairs in Hanoi Cesare Bieller said: ‘We acknowledge the importance of the task you are undertaking and we hope that your story will be received with the importance that it deserves.’ However, he added that the Italian Embassy ‘does not have any investigative powers in the matter’.
, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, said: ‘The Government of Vietnam has jurisdiction with respect to the allegations by Vietnamese citizens. The U.S. Embassy is unaware of any complaints or requests.
‘The United States is required to review thoroughly every intercountry adoption at the point when the adoptive parents request approval for their child to live in the United States. Although the United States has expressed serious concerns about inter-country adoptions in Vietnam, during these reviews, we have not identified problems specifically related to adoptions of children from the Ruc community.’
Help cannot come soon enough for Cao Thi Thu who, in a few weeks, will spend her fourth Lunar New Year holiday apart from her missing daughters. As we sat in her home, her quiet but persistent appeals for help continued up to the moment a local police official walked in and ordered us to leave.
It was clear that this was our final warning. With my interpreter, we clumsily bundled towards the door in a humiliating
and cowardly flurry of farewells, leaving Thu bemused and disappointed.
‘Tell Thu we’ll do everything we can,’ I told my interpreter as we pushed our way through the throng of villagers to the door. As I looked back, my gaze was met with a mother’s look of hopelessness and immeasurable yearning for the children she fears she may never hold again.
The Irish Daily Mail has forwarded the documents and pictures collected from the Ruc community to the U.S. and Italian embassies in Hanoi.
Lan and Luong were among 13 children taken away from Vietnam’s smallest and most backward ethnic minority and then sold for E7,000 each
For sale: Reporter Simon Parry holds a baby offered for adoption
Robbed: Mother Cao Thi Thu wants her children back