Historical wounds underlie outrage at plight of Chadian 'orphans'

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DAKAR, Senegal: In 1890, King Leopold II of Belgium wrote to one of his colonial officials and asked him to set up orphanages in the vast African territory he ruled as his personal fief, the Congo.

The only problem with his plan was that there were no orphans. The concept scarcely existed in Congo or much of the rest of Africa. This is a continent where thousands of ethnic groups and cultures across a vast and diverse landscape nevertheless share basic traditions that dictate that a child whose parents have died is the responsibility of the broader family and community.

But Leopold's problem was quickly solved: his men kidnapped boys from their families and dispatched them to the "orphanages," where they received a bit of catechism, some military training and, if they were lucky, baptism.

Mostly, as recounted by the historian Adam Hochschild in his book "King Leopold's Ghost," the boys eventually became soldiers in Leopold's vast native army, if they did not die in the long, harsh marches to the orphanages from their villages.

For Africans, Leopold's orphan hunt, driven by relentless greed run amok in a colony he ravaged as his personal property, is only one particularly egregious example of a series of deep, and well-remembered, historical wounds.

That record helps explain the skepticism and outrage that greeted the efforts of a French charity, whose members were arrested last week as they tried to fly 103 children from Chad to France, to go hunting for orphans in the deserts between Chad and Sudan.

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