High among the jagged limestone peaks that mark Vietnam’s border with Laos, Cao Thi Thu squats on the stone floor of her family’s hut and pleads, “Please help bring my daughters home.”
Thu says it has been more than three years since officials came to village and offered her the chance to send her daughters Cao Thi Lan, 3, and Cao Thi Luong, 8 to be educated in the provincial capital. She says they were instead sold for adoption overseas.
Clutching the only photographs she has of the girls — shots ironically taken at the children’s home to send out to prospective adoptive parents abroad — the pain of separation from her daughters is as sharp today as it was on the day she last saw them.
“I am sad and I am very worried,” the 35-year-old said. “I don’t even know which country they are in. I don’t know if they are together or apart. They should be with their families here in Vietnam, not thousands of miles away with strangers.”
Lan and Luong were among 13 children taken from Vietnam’s smallest and least developed ethnic minority — the Ruc hill tribe — and then given to adoptive parents in Italy and the United States months later in return for fees of around $10,000 per child.
A police investigation has been launched into complaints from the parents that their children were adopted without their permission but villagers fear it will be a whitewash and want foreign governments to intervene.
The pleas to diplomats have so far fallen on deaf ears.
It was in September 2006 when officials from Quang Bing province’s capital Dong Hoi visited the tiny hill tribe, which numbers only 500 people.
The families say the officials picked 13 children aged 2 to 9 and offered to house and feed them at a children’s social welfare center in Dong Hoi and return them when their education was complete.
The parents — all poor farmers and mostly illiterate — agreed and were driven to Dong Hoi with their children where they signed consent forms placing them into the care of the local authority.
Four months later, in the Lunar New Year holiday in 2007, Thu went to visit her daughters. “They looked well but they missed me very much. They said ‘Mommy, please take us home,’ ” she recalled.
“I couldn’t bear to see them so sad so I decided to take them home. I took them by the hands and led them out of the children’s home towards the bus stop — but the security guards stopped me and told me I couldn’t take them away.
“The officials at the children’s home said I had signed papers and had to leave them in their care. I was crying and very upset but I believed them and I went home alone.”
A year later — shortly before the 2008 Lunar New Year holiday — Thu traveled to Dong Hoi to visit her daughters again.
When she arrived, she was told both girls had been adopted overseas.
“Those men lied to me,” said Thu, who has three other children. “They said the children would return to the village when they finished school. But they sold them as if they were livestock.”
News of the children’s fate spread quickly around the Ruc community villages as other parents discovered that their sons and daughters too had been sent overseas. Some were even handed photographs of their children with their new adoptive parents.
In the provincial capital Dong Hai, Le Thi Thu Ha, director of the children’s home where the 13 children were taken, confirmed a police investigation had been launched into the circumstances in which the Ruc children were adopted overseas.
Ha — who recently replaced former director Nguyen Tien Ngu who handled the adoptions — insisted, “All of the legal documents [for the adoptions] were in order. It was approved by the provincial ministry of justice and the provincial social welfare centre and it was done with the consent of the Ruc parents.
“The local police force started investigating the case a few months ago when the parents persisted with their complaints. We expect the investigation to be complete and the results announced in the first quarter of 2010.”
By the time the investigation is complete, the children will have been apart from their parents for more than four years. Despite appeals made to them nearly two years ago, neither the US nor the Italian embassies have taken up the parents’ cause.
Anthropologist Peter Bille Larsen, who worked in the border area, alerted the embassies in early 2008 and was baffled by the inaction. He argues the children should be sent home however long it takes.
“I would want to see my children again even if they had been sent to the other end of the world,” he said, dismissing the idea that the youngsters were better off in relatively wealthy western families.