Pictures of hope

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Years after their sons and daughters were 'stolen' and adopted abroad without their consent, a number of Vietnamese parents have finally been shown proof the children are alive and well. Now, their poor hill-tribe villagers face a moral dilemma.

At first glance, it looks like an ordinary family picture: a doting Caucasian father hovers over his two adopted Asian daughters in the living room of a comfortable suburban home. He holds the younger girl gently by her shoulders.

All three beam contentedly at the camera.

In a ramshackle home on Vietnam's border with Laos, Cao Thi Thu looks at the image of her daughters with a mixture of joy and pain.

"I am just so relieved to see their faces again and to know they are alive," says Thu, 37. "But my daughters were stolen from me and I want them to come home. My heart is broken. I miss them so much."

For three long years, Thu has struggled to find out what happened to her two little girls. Officials had promised to educate and raise them in a children's home in the provincial capital; instead, they sent the girls to live with adoptive parents in Italy.

The two girls - Lan, now eight and Luong, 13, - were among 13 children taken from the Ruc hill tribe in Vietnam's Quang Binh Province in 2006 and sent overseas.

Early last year, the scandal was exposed by the South China Morning Post.

Like Thu, all of the parents had agreed to let their children attend the home, 100 kilometers away in Dong Hoi, after being visited by officials who offered the youngsters a better start in life. When the parents went to visit their children in early 2008, however, they were told they had been adopted overseas. Illiterate and only able to sign their names in a scrawl, the parents say they were tricked into signing papers that gave authorities permission to sell their children to families overseas.

Now officials in both Vietnam and Italy appear to be taking the case seriously, albeit with a degree of reluctance. A police investigation has acknowledged mistakes and irregularities in the handling of the adoptions and a new official inquiry has been launched in Vietnam, which Italian officials say they'll monitor.

The head of the children's home has personally apologized to Thu and the other Ruc. The officials have shown the aggrieved parents photos of their children living in their adoptive homes. The photos offered them the first real evidence since their disappearance that their children are alive and well.

Determined to fight

As the families prepared for a fifth Lunar New Year holiday separated from their offspring, however, they remained determined to fight for their children's return.

On a misty January afternoon, Thu arrived at a quiet café, eight kilometers from her home and produced a plastic bag from the folds of her coat containing photographs and documents detailing her children's whereabouts.

Her desperation has been replaced by hope - hope that rests in the crumpled photographs of her daughters that she obtained during a meeting with officials in November, when an apology was given by the new director of the children's home.

"I was so happy to see my daughters again but the officials didn't even tell me where they are," Thu says. "They just gave us these pictures to look at."

Two factors seem to have pressured officials into apologizing to the Ruc families and giving them information: Vietnamese and regional newspapers taking up the Post's story and the persistence of the parents.

Cao Thi Hong, 56, was instrumental in organizing the parents and petitioning the local government. Hong was already a widow when her daughter, Bich, then aged 14, and son, Cao Duc Buoi, then aged 10, were taken to the children's home. Bich, now 19, is the oldest of the missing children.

"They told us the government wanted to support poor families by taking their children to the local children's center and providing them with food and education," she says. "They said the children would return to the village with a good education and help support their families. So, of course, we agreed.

"I was struggling on my own and I believed them. My son and daughter went to Dong Hoi in 2006. I went to visit them twice but the third time I went, they were gone. I demanded to know where they were and I went up to see the director [Nguyen Tien Ngu].

"He told me my children had been very lucky. They had been chosen to go overseas to be educated in foreign languages. He told me it was a real privilege for me and my family that they had been chosen - he said I should be very proud and told me, `Not many children get this opportunity.""˜

Hong says she is angry at herself for accepting the director's word.

"I began to realize I had been tricked and that my children had been sold for adoption," she said. "I felt terrible. My children had been stolen from me and I felt cheated. Then I got angrier and angrier and I decided to do something about it."

No answer

Last summer, Hong gathered the eight affected families together for a series of meetings and then - with the help of a daughter and son-in-law who could write - sent a petition to the local authorities demanding to be told what happened to the 13 children. Copies of their petition were sent to some of Vietnam's state-run newspapers. The petition gave momentum to the parents' case, forcing officials to publicly admit irregularities in the adoption process and to apologize.

At the November meeting, Hong held the pictures of her children for a few minutes before being forced to hand them back.

"When I saw the photographs, I was so happy to see them looking healthy and well," she says. "But I'm worried that they will enjoy the life there and never want to come back. I just want to see them again. I am getting old and I am afraid I will die before I see them again."

They may have been young as far as Hong is concerned, but they were not young enough for some. The ages of both children were changed on official papers from the children's home. Documents we saw show Bich's birth year as 1997, instead of the actual 1992, while Buoi s had been changed to 1998, from 1995.

The families believe the ages were altered to make the children more attractive to adoptive parents and to dodge a legal requirement in Vietnam for children over nine to sign papers agreeing to an overseas adoption. In the case of Thu's children, the two girls' family name has been changed from Cao, a distinctive hill-tribe name, to Tran, which is common in Vietnam. The age of the older girl was changed by two years, to make her appear six years old instead of eight.

Deliberate alterations to the children's adoption profiles were referred to in a police report released at the end of last year as "irregularities" and "mistakes" in the adoption process. The report concluded, however, that there was no corruption.

"I don't trust the police investigation. They lied," Thu says. "At the meeting in November, the man who was director of the orphanage at the time all this happened [Nguyen Tien Ngu] was there. I told him, `You sold our children. How would you feel if this had happened to your children?' He just sat there. He had no answer."

The current director of the children's home, Le Thi Thu Ha, who issued the apology to the parents in November, refuses to discuss the case.

Italian response

Italian officials appear divided about what to do next.

"The embassy is not in the condition to retrieve contacts with adopted children," Ambassador Lorenzo Angeloni wrote, via e-mail. "By law, we are not allowed to do this."

Ariete did not respond to e-mails from Post Magazine but Daniela Bacchetta, vice-president of the Italian Commission for International Adoptions, wrote that "the dossiers on the 13 children have been thoroughly examined and appear to be flawless.

"We await the findings of the investigations by the Vietnamese authorities. Should the outcome of the investigation carried out by the Vietnamese authorities confirm the assumptions of irregularities, we would agree on the steps to take with the Vietnamese central authority."

Bacchetta visited Vietnam in December, to discuss Italian adoptions. She declined to say if the matter of the Ruc children was raised. She did confirm that the Italian authorities have made no attempt to contact the parents or investigate the matter within Vietnam, and says her office only learnt of the identities of the 13 children in December, despite having first been alerted to the case in 2008.

"The woman from the children's center told us our children were in Italy," Thu said as she pores through the documents she's managed to cobble together. "I have no idea where Italy is and they wouldn't give us phone numbers or addresses to get in touch with them. They just say, `Send a letter to us and we'll send it to your children' - but why should we believe them after everything that's happened?"

In the course of the interview, reporters from the Post recognized, among the documents, a list of the names and addresses of all of the adopted children. Hong and Thu light up and immediately begin drafting letters to their children aloud.

"I'll ask them, `What is it like in Italy? How are your studies going?' I'll tell them how much I miss them and I'll ask them whether they can come home to see me," smiles Thu. She pauses before adding quietly: "I know it's not all that simple. I realize it's their decision now and they must decide. But it will be wonderful to be in contact with my children again."

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