- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

LONDON A nightmare three-week voyage by as many as 250 children aboard a slave ship running dangerously short of food and water failed to end as expected yesterday in Benin, where U.N. officials were waiting to meet it.
The MV Etireno has covered 1,200 miles during its trip around West Africa, with its ever more desperate crew unable to find a place to offload the children without the fear of arrest.
The children, from Benin and neighboring Togo, are thought to be as young as 10 and to have been sold for as little as $15 by their parents.
They had apparently been sold to work on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, where more than half the world's chocolate is produced, including much of that used to make the Easter candy handed out in Western nations yesterday.
The whereabouts of the ship remain a mystery. Benin officials said it had been turned away Thursday from the port of Douala in Cameroon and was believed bound back to Benin's main city, Cotonou, where its voyage began about three weeks ago. The return sea voyage from Douala normally takes just two days.
The ship was earlier prevented from docking in Gabon. All the countries are along the Gulf of Guinea.
Officials with the U.N. children's agency told the Associated Press that the boat may have docked elsewhere.
There are several major ports in Nigeria where it may have docked, avoiding detection by bribing port officials. Nigeria is considered one of the world's most corrupt nations and regulation enforcement is often lax.
Known as "chocolate slaves," thousands of children between the ages of 9 and 12 are sold from Mali, Benin, Central African Republic and Togo to work on the plantations.
Some are kidnapped by traders while playing outside their homes; others are sold by parents living in poverty. In many cases, brokers persuade parents that their children will receive professional training or a good education with a wealthy family.
Instead, according to anti-slavery campaigners, the children are imprisoned on farms and forced to work long hours in the fields. Many are never seen or heard from again; many die in transit.
The children receive no money for their labor and are badly beaten. Those who escape can rarely find their way home and usually end up as prostitutes or beggars.
Slavery is banned internationally by all countries, and until recently child slavery had been confined to war-ravaged societies such as Angola and Sudan, where 10-year-old girls are used as servants and concubines.
Worsening poverty in many African countries, however, combined with falling commodities prices, means that slave trading is occurring in relatively peaceful areas.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) more than 15,000 children are working on coffee and cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast.
"People who are drinking cocoa or coffee are drinking their blood," said Sali Kante, the director of Save the Children in Mali. "It is the blood of young children carrying cocoa sacks so heavy that they have wounds all over. It's pitiful to see."
The trade has gruesome echoes of the region's past, when European slave traders shipped millions of West Africans into forced labor on plantations in the Americas. Today's traders are Africans and Lebanese.
Most of the trade is carried out over land, but ships are occasionally used. Three years ago, Benin's port authorities found a slave ship with more than 400 children on board.
The Etireno had been expected to land in Benin yesterday but may have been frightened away by international publicity. Reception centers have been set up in Cotonou, a historic slaving market, where U.N. officials gathered over the weekend.
The Benin government said action would be taken against the crew and that the captain would be arrested. If the ship does dock, U.N. officials will try to reunite the children with their parents.
"Centers have been established in Benin to receive such children where they can be housed temporarily while we establish their identity," said Estelle Guluman, a UNICEF spokeswoman in Benin.
The aging Etireno had made regular trips from Benin to Gabon loaded with human cargo over the past five years, said Hadi Lai Landou, a senior official with the Benin state shipping firm. The company was contracted to provide docking and other services for the ship.
The vessel was filthy and in poor condition. "I would never travel on that ship," he told the AP.
There is confusion over the exact number of children aboard. Mrs. Ramatou Baba-Moussa, the Benin social affairs minister, said that she believed there were 180 children aboard when the vessel left Benin. Other reports range up to 250 or even higher.
Either way, say port officials, the ship was far too small for such a cargo and, having expected only a short voyage, is unlikely to have been carrying adequate water and food supplies.
"We can only imagine what condition the children are in," said another UNICEF spokesman. "We are prepared for the worst."

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