FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Balia Kamara's mother sent her to a center in northern Sierra Leone so the 5-year-old could receive an education and food, and stay out of harm's way during the West African country's brutal civil war.
The mother visited Balia at the Help A Needy Child International center, known as HANCI, regularly for two years until 1998, when the children there were taken to Sierra Leone's capital for medical examinations. They never returned.
Parents of about 30 children at the center say they only later learned that the children had been adopted by Americans and sent abroad without permission.
"We were reluctant to hand over the child," recalled Balia's mother, Mariama Jabbie, in an interview with The Associated Press. "When they told us that they were going to educate her up to college level, we decided to hand her over. That was how they were able to entice us to do so."
In 2004, the center's director and two of his employees were arrested and charged with conspiracy to violate adoption laws. Those charges against them though ultimately were dropped and the case disbanded, according to court records.
Now more than a decade after the children disappeared, Sierra Leone's government said late Wednesday it is setting up a national commission of inquiry to re-examine the case of the HANCI children following years of pressure from their biological parents.
The American agency that facilitated the children's adoptions maintains it has no knowledge of any wrongdoing on the part of their staff in the West African nation.
Last month, the children's biological parents stormed the office of Sierra Leone's social welfare minister, demanding the government help them find a way to communicate with their children. A spokesman for the parents, Kassim Kargbo, said they had traveled from villages in the north nearly 100 miles from the capital.
The parents also published an open letter to President Ernest Bai Koroma in a local newspaper. They asked Sierra Leone's government to reopen the case against those who ran the HANCI center where the children were staying.
Sierra Leone is not the only country where there has been controversy over whether parents have given sufficient consent for adoptions. Guatemala suspended international adoptions for nearly two years after the discovery that some babies were being sold.
In Argentina, the government confirmed that hundreds of children were taken from dissidents and raised by military families or others that supported the ruling military junta in the 1970s and early 1980s. El Salvador has worked to reunite children who were also separated from their families during that country's civil war and adopted by foreign families.
The HANCI adoption case in Sierra Leone began amid the country's devastating decade-long war that ended in 2002, a conflict dramatized in the film "Blood Diamond."
Rebels burned villages, raped women and turned kidnapped children into drugged teenage fighters. Tens of thousands of civilians died and countless others were left mutilated after rebels cut off body parts with machetes. The U.S. State Department says 134 children were adopted between 1999 and 2003, the year after the war ended.
Abu Bakarr, who is now the coordinator for the birth parents of the adopted children, said that the HANCI center in Makeni refused to return the children to their parents in 1998. Those who ran HANCI said reducing the number of children at the center would affect its funding, Bakarr said.
HANCI ultimately contacted Maine Adoption Placement Services (MAPS) to foster U.S. adoptions, and MAPS says it placed 29 of the 33 children from the home with adoptive parents in the U.S. HANCI maintains the parents gave informed consent. It said the agreements also were taken to Makeni's magistrate court for clearance
"It was made clear to the parents that all the children kept at the center were for adoption," HANCI said in a statement released late last year. "Each parent completed and signed a document to the effect."
When reached by The Associated Press, Maine Adoption Placement Services' chief executive officer said she stood by earlier statements about the case.
"MAPS has no knowledge of any wrongdoing on the part of our Sierra Leone staff and are cooperating fully with the investigation," Stephanie Mitchell said.
The legal process for the adoptions was approved at the time by Sierra Leone's government, as well as by the U.S. State Department, she said. "We've heard nothing officially from anyone from Sierra Leone for years," she added.
But the children's birth parents say that adoption was never mentioned, nor was a trip out of the country. For years they never knew what had become of the children and feared they may have been killed during the war. Not until 2004 did they learn they were adopted by Americans, Bakarr said.
"I only thumb-printed the form to the effect that the center was going to take care of my two children," said Pa Brima Kargbo, whose 6-year-old daughter Adama and 3-year-old son Mustapha were placed at the center. "Now we want to see our children whether they are dead or alive, even if it is for two days."
Chuck Johnson, the acting CEO of the National Council for Adoption, said Sierra Leone requires annual post-adoption reports until the child reaches the age of 18.
Mitchell said MAPS has been diligent in sending annual post-placement reports, along with photos of the adopted kids, to authorities in Sierra Leone as required.
"We can produce copies of those," she said. "We've been very rigorous."
While Sierra Leone is opening a national commission of inquiry, it is highly unlikely to bring the closure the birth parents are seeking. Mitchell said if the government requests contact be established between the adoptive families and birth families: "I think they would have the right to say no."
Johnson doubts the U.S. would try to enforce anything beyond the post-adoption report requirement.
"It would be up to the agency to try and convince adoptive families to do more than initially required of them," he said.
It's been nearly 15 years since Sulaiman Suma last saw his 4½-year-old daughter Mabinty and 3½-year-old son Sulaiman. Both are now young adults believed to be living in the United States.
"We want our children who were sold to these white people," Suma said. "We want to know whether they are alive or dead."
Carley Petesch reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press Writer David Crary in New York contributed to this report.