Who has the right to the truth?
On August 20, 2011 Vanessa Tchatchou, 17 years-old, gives birth to a baby girl in the light of day only to plunge into a tunnel of darkness a few hours later. The baby simply vanishes from the maternity Ward at Yaoundé’s Gynaeco-Obstetric Hospital, and Vanessa launches an eight-month long sit-in. Reported nationally in Cameroon and internationally by broadcast networks, L’AFFAIRE Vanessa turns into a scandal and a crisis of accountability involving the highest corridors of power. When Vanessa is forcibly removed from the Hospital and told that her baby was found dead she refuses to believe the verdict. After receiving life threats she decides to go into hiding, supported by her lawyer. Today only a few people know where she lives, under an assumed name.
Six years later Vanessa meets Agnès, a young filmmaker from Yaoundé, who is determined to set out to find the truth about what happened and demand justice from those responsible for the alleged cover-up.
They will dig as deep and as far as they will be allowed…
stories without borders
Vanessa Tchatchou, the young Cameroonian mother whose baby was abducted shortly after she was born, is today a young 23 year-old woman with a mission to find out whether she has the right to the truth and above all to find her missing child.
Who can shed light on what happened? Agnès, a filmmaker and a mother, strongly supports Vanessa’s insistence that they return to the scene of the crime and meet all those who remember and who may help them shed light on the what happened and move forward. They meet the journalist and politician Vincent Sosthene Fouda, who was charged for taking part in illegal demonstrations and inciting the population to “rebel” against the State. Jean-Claude Shanda Tonmé, an international human rights lawyer, and they go home to Vanessa’s mother who remains bereft and in shock until today.
They talk to other women who suffered the trauma of child theft. One of them, Josepha Kileba, who campaigned relentlessly for over 20 years, was recently reunited with her son thanks to the SOS Enfants Volés movement and committed activists such as Kah Wallah from the Cameroon People Party.
They will try to get to speak to the highest reaches of power. Will they be allowed access? On their quest for the truth they meet civil society and religious leaders, eye witnesses, human rights professionals, lawyers, civil society activists child trafficking experts, a child trafficker and psychiatrists about the nature of trauma caused by this heinous human rights abuse.
Hunting for the truth Vanessa and Agnes revisit the hospital in Yaoundé where her child vanished. Here they look for clues for new interpretations they observe the high security environment. On their journey to talk to witnesses and those involved they travel across the country. From the urban sprawls of Yaoundé and Bamenda, to the tranquillity of the small locality Bandjoun 300 kms from Yaoundé to the fishing village of Kribi, where Vanessa finally meets other women victims of child abduction. But Vanessa wants to travel even further, she hopes to take her story and her mission to the UN.
According to UNICEF around 1.2 million children are trafficked worldwide every year.
The same year Vanessa’s baby vanished in 2011, shortly after she had briefly held her baby girl in her arms, a total of 94 cases of baby abductions were registered in Yaoundé alone, where Vanessa lives. Children disappear into the cracks of political corruption and social obliviousness, leaving mothers like Vanessa bereft, helpless and at the mercy of official explanations against which they have no redress.
In Spain over 300,000 babies and young children vanished under General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship where the practice of removing children from “undesirable", left-wing families began in the 1930s and was later practiced by Catholic institution involved in money-spinning operations where young unmarried women considered unworthy sinners were robbed of their babies who were sold for profit instead.
In Argentina under the military dictatorship (1976-1983) over 500 children were abducted or went missing from dissenting families and legally adopted by the regime’s supporters. Argentina’s National Genetic DNA Bank, established after the fall of the regime has resolved over 100 cases and it is hoped the same techniques can help the Bring Back Our Girls campaign hunting the stolen children by the militant Boko Haram group in Nigeria.
In China, a number of high-profile cases of children rescued from mines and brick kilns prompted a National DNA Database with over 200 DNA centres, established to help trace an increasing number of missing children. It is often boys who are taken when it is cheaper to buy a child than pay the fine for having a second or third.
Evidence points to children being trafficked into prostitution rings, unpaid labour, illegal adoptions, household and domestic labour, organ sales.
The influential Spanish geneticist Jose Lorente, founder of DNA ProKids - a programme of DNA test kits - hopes to achieve a worldwide DNA testing programme. So far 800 children were matched with their families.
According to the US State Department Cameroon is a country of origin, transit and destination for children subjected to trafficking for domestic servitude, organ traffic, street vending, sex trade and other illicit activities and hazardous and forced labour settings including mines and plantations. Forced labour accounts for 40 percent of cases of trafficked children and according to The International Labour Organisation (ILO) generates over $150bn a year in profits.
Trafficking is an activity where corruption and collusion such as bribery are suspected at the highest levels are suspected including Ministries, Hospitals, Health and Social Services, adoption agencies and Embassies.
What can be done?
Vanessa is set on a path to reclaim the truth and find her child. Six years on, aged 23 today, she has found the courage to say she will not adjust to the trauma she suffered and hope that time will heal. Her goal is to continue her education, become a lawyer and set up solidarity networks at community level to raise consciousness and give hope to those victims of this abomination. She is determined to achieve a national acknowledgement of the problem and calls for the rule of law to be applied to end this crime.
Having received life threats and lived in hiding for five years under an assumed name she will not simply adjust to her trauma and hope that time will heal her wound. Set on her own path to empowerment she aims to set up a web of social solidarity, networks for support for social change and accountability. She hopes to write a book about her story and her search for her child.
Too many questions have been left unanswered. Where are the children? What kind of phenomenon is this, what do we know and how much more of the truth needs to resurface?
A missing child prompts a lifelong search. A loss for which there is no compensation, it constitutes a psychological trauma of immense proportions, for which all too often there is no help at hand for those affected.
Please support Vanessa as she continues to demand the truth about her missing child and the documentary L’AFFAIRE Vanessa.
A Change.org petition to find Vanessa’s baby was signed by Hillary Clinton.