Independent Appeal: Theft of a beloved son sheds light on the scandal of child trafficking in west Africa

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The Independent Online

William Koua is revelling in the somewhat unlikely new nickname of Columbo. Not that he bears much physical resemblance to the shambling television detective. But his story of how he tracked down four children, including his son Gilbert, trafficked by an unscrupulous pastor, has convinced friends and family in the Ivory Coast village of Zeaglo of his detective skills.

The arrival last April of a charismatic preacher called the Rev Siehi promising to open a new school, seemed like manna from heaven for the desperately poor community of 6,000.

Construction of three new classrooms was soon complete and the children started attending lessons. But after only six weeks of study, the preacher suggested that the brightest children might be better accommodated at another institution down the road. He picked four aged between two and five and members of the Gere tribe.

The parents were grateful for the opportunity for their children, and gathered to wave them off as they boarded a bus one evening.

It soon became clear that all was not well when a child protection worker from Save the Children, one of three charities being supported by The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year, asked to see some documentation confirming the move. There was none.

Mr Koua's wife, Ange-Sylvie, had just given birth to her third child when Gilbert boarded the bus. "The day he disappeared I felt completely lost like I did not know who I was anymore," she said.

Trafficking is big business in the Ivory Coast with gangs and individuals all too willing to exploit traditional kinship practices in which children are sent to live with better-off relatives.

The traffickers bring some 12,000 children from across west Africa each year to toil as virtual slaves in the country's cocoa plantations while a smaller number are set to work for as little as 1 a day in Ivorian gold mines. It is estimated some 2,000 trafficked girls are consigned annually to a life as bonded domestic servants in Abidjan, where sexual exploitation is an ever-present danger. Others find themselves sent for illegal adoptions overseas.

Mr Koua travelled to Abidjan where, with help from Save the Children, he began his search. After two months, the farmer located an address and a telephone number for the Rev Siehi. "When I rang him he was very cool and relaxed. He actually invited me to his house," recalled Mr Koua. But what he found out was deeply disturbing. The four children had been separated. One of the girls, Veronique, was with the pastor, another, Linda, had been billeted with a powerful local government official who had paid the pastor 250 to procure a light-skinned daughter for a childless friend living in France.

The other two were being kept at separate locations. Mr Koua eventually arranged to see all the children one by one, remaining as cool as he could for fear of jeopardising their safety.

Though improving, the Ivory Coast fails to meet even the most basic minimum international standards on trafficking though a draft bill formally outlawing the trade is pending.

But with a powerful international aid organisation on his side, Mr Koua found the police willing to take his story seriously. The pastor was arrested and is now in jail awaiting trial, while the children are all safely back home with relatives.