Friday, December 07, 2007

Angelina Jolie adoption torture threats

from The Daily Telegraph

By Stephen Bevan

HER credentials as a caring superstar could hardly be bettered. Angelina Jolie, mother of four, is as famous for her well-publicised adoptions of children from Third World countries as she is for her Oscar-winning movies and relationship with Brad Pitt.

As a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees for the past six years, the beautiful 32-year-old actress has travelled frequently to impoverished African states, often to the heart of a conflict, to highlight the plight of the world's most desperate people.

In October, she visited Western Sudan to bring to the world's attention the appalling conditions endured by an estimated 2.5 million people who have fled brutal ethnic fighting in the war-torn province of West Darfur.

The visit took the film star within an hour's flight of neighbouring Ethiopia, the birthplace of her daughter Zahara, whom she adopted amid much publicity in July 2005 in what seemed to be a flamboyant act of charity.

Indeed, even the most cynical Hollywood-watcher couldn't fail to be moved by Jolie's description of the hell from which her new daughter had been removed.

The little girl's natural mother had, according to Jolie, died of AIDS. Malnourished and suffering from rickets, six-month-old Zahara was, it was claimed, just days away from death when Jolie found her at an orphanage in Addis Ababa, nursed her back to health and adopted her.

Although they knew Zahara had family back in Ethiopia, Jolie and Pitt have chosen not to visit Awassa, the lakeside town where the little girl was born. Had they done so, they may well have been shocked by what they found.

It has now been revealed that not only is Zahara's mother, Mentewab Dawit Lebiso, alive and well, but the man who arranged Zahara's adoption has been waging a campaign of threats and intimidation against her family.

When rumours surfaced last month in America that all was not as it appeared with the paperwork, the American headquarters of the international adoption agency Wide Horizons For Children initially insisted Zahara's mother was dead.

But in Ethiopia, the man who brought Zahara to the agency knows Mentewab is alive and has been attempting to shut her up. Traced to Zahara's home town, Mentewab and her extended family, speaking through interpreters, have now told their side of the story.

Although aged 24, she is struggling, between selling onions in a market, to finish high school. It is a measure of the desperate lack of opportunity afforded to young Ethiopians: in this part of the world, many people don't start any formal learning until they are in their mid-teens.

In taped interviews, Mentewab, her mother Almaz Elfneh, 45, and sisters Frehiwot, 18, and Zinash, 20, tell a disturbing story of rape, grinding poverty, lies and dubious official paperwork.

It was this, rather than AIDS, that took Zahara on the extraordinary journey from her starving family to an orphanage in Addis Ababa and on to the Hollywood mansion owned by two of the world's most famous film stars.

And while the American headquarters of Wide Horizons For Children and Jolie may well be oblivious to the harsh realities of what goes on in adoptions such as these, the revelations have come as no surprise to the man who arranged the adoption for the agency, 'Mr Fix-It' Girma Degu. Indeed, rather than try to deny it when confronted with the family's account of what happened, he went straight to the house where Mentewab was staying with her sisters in Awassa.

There, he threatened to have one of her sisters jailed for talking to journalists.

Mentewab was interviewed in the dirt yard outside her uncle's home. Her story starts in 2004, many miles from Awassa in the town of Shone, where she was staying with her grandmother while she attended school. One night, when her grandmother was away on business, a stranger broke in and subjected her to a brutal rape. When, a few months later, it became impossible to hide the fact Mentewab was pregnant, her relatives disowned her.

"I felt so lonely," Mentewab says in her native Amharic language. "I thought about having an abortion but I didn't have the money. There was nothing I could do."

In the absence of other options, Mentewab, who was determined to finish her education, went to stay with a cousin in nearby Hosanna.

Her baby girl was born at Hosanna hospital on January 7, 2005 - Christmas Day in Ethiopia. Mentewab called her Yemasrech, which means good news, although she was later renamed Tena Adam, the name of a local herb.

Impoverished Mentewab struggled to look after her daughter. When her mother Almaz learned of her plight, she came to Hosanna.

"She told me, 'It's all right, we can raise this baby together.' I think she thought I might kill myself if she didn't help me," Mentewab says.

All three returned to Awassa, where they stayed with Mentewab's uncle in a gloomy, cramped, three-room hut with a mud floor and tin roof on the outskirts of town. Almaz looked after the baby while Mentewab worked as a labourer on a building site.

Her meagre wages paid barely enough to feed them.

"Sometimes all I had was a piece of bread all day," she says.

Finally, when her uncle asked them to leave his house and find their own place, their family life went into a free fall.

"My baby was crying all the time because she was hungry. I thought she was going to die, so I ran away," Mentewab says.

It was the act of a frightened and ill-educated girl but her decision to flee was to have far-reaching consequences.

"After Mentewab left I didn't have money to buy her food so the baby lost a lot of weight," Almaz says. "She was really skinny. I was even thinking she could die. I went to the Kebele (the local council) and told them my daughter ran away and had left the baby with me.

"I said to them, 'Please take the baby before she dies.' They asked me to bring three people to witness that the mother had run away and that I could not afford to keep the baby."

Almaz had already been introduced to Girma, a local man, by her sister-in-law and he agreed to take the baby after the Kebele gave consent.

Girma took the baby to Addis Ababa, Almaz says.

"He promised he would keep in touch. He said he would bring back the baby to visit after five months and he would send me a picture.

"He also promised to introduce me to the family that would adopt her."

Almaz says she never told Girma or the authorities that her daughter had died.

"But then Girma came to me and told me that the baby had been adopted and taken abroad," she says. "He said there will be journalists coming to you and you must deny the whole story and say it is not your granddaughter."

After stories first began to circulate two years ago that Zahara's birth mother was still alive, Almaz says Girma dragged her to the local council offices and accused her of lying. He also tried to force her to say that Zahara was not her granddaughter.

"He brought this woman who claimed Tena Adam was her daughter," she says. "He tried everything to get me to say it's not my granddaughter. He even threatened he'd put me in jail and have me tortured."

But Almaz refused to budge.

The revelation that Zahara's mother is alive and living on a few dollars a week while she struggles to complete her education will come as a huge embarrassment to Wide Horizons For Children, which claims to have placed more than 10,000 children from all over the world with Western families since 1974.

Dr Tsegaye Berhe, head of the agency in Ethiopia, says he was told Zahara's mother was dead at the time of the adoption and has the official papers to prove it.

"We have to trust the documents we received," he says. "She (Almaz) has signed, three witnesses have signed, but the document is saying something different to what she is saying now. She said her daughter had died."

And in a move some might regard as intimidation, Berhe says he has asked the government to instruct Ethiopian police to investigate whether the grandmother lied to the Kebele. "We have already talked to the government," he says.

"The grandmother has given two statements. One that the mother is dead, another that she is alive. We have told the government what she is doing and that it has to take action because it is the government she's made to look foolish.

"It's a big scandal to say something then another thing the next day. That will make a big problem for her."

Berhe produced the paperwork he says was signed by Almaz and three other witnesses testifying that Zahara's mother had died, but refused to allow it to be copied or photographed. One of the three witnesses named in the document, Asegadech Asefaw, backs up Almaz's account that she told officials her daughter had run away.

Another of Almaz's former neighbours, Bekelech Haile, says she also confirmed Almaz's version of events but, strangely, her name does not appear on the document.

Witnesses say they've never heard of the name that does.

"I cannot read or write," Almaz now says. "I don't know what they wrote but what I said was that my daughter ran away, not that she was dead."

The adoption agency says it makes efforts to establish links between adoptive parents and a child's family. Berhe says he always arranges for adoptive parents to go to the village to meet surviving family, take pictures and videos, and even have some correspondence.

"It's very important because when the child grows, we don't want him or her to lose their identity," he says. "(The child) is going to ask a lot of questions . . . Why did you adopt me? Who are my parents? Where do I come from? Questions the child is going to ask."

Yet, according to Zahara's birth family, Jolie has never visited their home in Awassa, where donkeys, cows and goats vie with cars and trucks for space on the road. Indeed, she has never contacted them or even sent a picture of Zahara.

Berhe does not dispute Jolie never met the family but blames media interest.

"There were a lot of journalists following her," he says. "She was not able to travel as she would have liked."

As for Jolie's failure to make any contact, he says the agency gets regular reports on how Zahara is doing from social workers in the US "but with the connection between the blood family and the adoptive parents, it is up to them."

Meanwhile, Wide Horizons For Children moved rapidly to distance itself from Girma, the man who supplied Zahara and the paperwork.

Although Girma says that he worked for the adoption agency and has distributed business cards claiming he represents it, Wide Horizons For Children says he is not an employee but is employed by an orphanage in Awassa.

It does not deny, however, that it was he who brought Zahara to its officials.

"What he has done is tanta- mount to kidnap," Mentewab says. "He took my daughter and just disappeared with her, saying I was dead."

She does recognise that Zahara has far better prospects with Jolie and Pitt.

"She will have a better life with Angelina," she says. "The thing that makes me upset is saying I'm dead - I'm alive and have never had AIDS."

She would like Jolie to bring her daughter to visit her birthplace, a gesture that would mean everything.

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