PARIS -- Seventy-two children who fled their burned-out orphanage in Bangladesh to avoid being massacred and wound up in an Indian refugee camp came to France Tuesday to begin new lives with French families.
Many of the orphans, appearing tired and frightened, cried as they were greeted by a burst of applause from the families who will give them new homes. Others emerged from the airplane at Charles De Gaulle airport bewildered by the flashing cameras of the media.
The children, all boys between the ages of 6 and 13, were transported from a refugee camp in India to which they fled after their orphanage in Bangladesh was destroyed more than a year ago.
Their arrival marked the end of a 16-month plea by Partage, a French social service group for Third World children, and the 72 sponsor families who provided the orphans with a jubilant homecoming.
There were 200 children at the Parbatya orphanage in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of southern Bangladesh when it was bombed and attacked by Bangladeshi soldiers claiming the land from a Buddhist tribe, the Chakmas. All but 72 were killed.
The survivors reported seeing many people in their village massacred before they fled into the jungle with soldiers in pursuit. Tired, sick and hungry, they ended up in a refugee camp in July 1986.
Partage and the families, with the aid of the French government, negotiated with Bangladeshi and Indian officials for the release of the children from the 'nightmarish refugee camp,' said Evelyn Krynan, a Partage director.
Since Partage sponsored the orphanage before it was attacked, 'We were morally responsible for the children's welfare after the attack,' she said, and the only acceptable solution was to bring them to France.
After months of 'diplomatic ping-pong,' one false arrival announcement last January and a petition campaign, the families were notified three days ago that the arrival was certain.
'It has been a very emotional year,' said Francoise Pigeon, mother of 6 children waiting to meet her new Bangladeshi family member.
'We've been fighting to save this child and now he is finally here,' said Pigeon.
Partage officials matched the children with families in an emotional reunion of hugs and tears. Gestures were the only way to communicate with the orphans since everyone lacked a common language.
'The refugees have been a bit traumatized during their transportation,' said Partage psychologist Margaret Despatur, but because they are so young they should adjust rapidly.
Despatur made preview visits to each family who agreed to sponsor an orphan. She explained the necessary criteria was 'a family with many young children and a complete desire to sponsor by both parents.'
Despatur added that since the sponsor period is indefinite, either the Bangledesh or Indian governments can recall the children any time, it was important for families to realize that a permanent adoption may not be possible.
'I just wanted to save a child in danger of dying,' said Gerard Gos, father of two children. Gos said he would like to adopt the child but will provide him with a home for as long as necessary.
The orphans, who suffered undernourishment in the refugee camps, wereserved a meal of fruit and mashed potatoes, an Air France steward said.