Flying in from all corners of the world, full of love and hope, flocks of prospective parents from wealthy countries arrive in impoverished Ethiopia to pick up adoptive children.
"Adoption – that's an act of mercy. It makes sense that the powerful should help the less powerful, or so I thought. I almost felt a bit guilty about having given birth to all five of my children."
That's how the journey begins for the Danish married couple in Katrine W. Kjær's "Mercy, Mercy". Like so many other childless Western couples, they long to have a family. They have a surplus of love and material prosperity to lavish on two children from one of the world's poorest countries – two adorable and very wanted children.
It was a fluke that Katrine Kjær ran into Henriette, the mother, who told her that she and her husband were in the process of adopting two children from Ethiopia.
"Adoption – that's an act of mercy," Kjær says. "It makes sense that the powerful should help the less powerful, or so I thought. I almost felt a bit guilty about having given birth to all five of my children."
Henriette showed her a picture of Masho, the girl, with her mother, Sinkenesh, and Kjær got her first shock when Henriette told her that the two children they had recently been offered after years on the waiting list were not languishing in an orphanage. No, they were living with their mother and father.
"It was the sweetest picture," Kjær says. "Sinkenesh didn't look at all like a mother who is giving up her child."
"It stunned me. I thought adopted children were like babies lying in cardboard boxes on the street. I figured I had to meet this mother who was giving up her children. It was a story I had to tell. But I had to hurry. The Danish adoption agency told me that the parents were very sick, almost dying, and would like the children to go to Denmark as soon as possible."
Close-up on an Ethiopian mother and father
Kjær went to Ethiopia and discovered the harsh realities behind an adoption boom that has made headlines across the world. In just a few years, the number of Ethiopian children who are given up for adoption to couples abroad has risen exponentially. International adoption organisations have flocked to the country, private orphanages are popping up like mushrooms in the rainy season and hopeful adoptive parents are pouring in.
But what about the actual parents who are giving up their children? Their side of the story has never really been told. Not before Kjær's film, which offers a close-up look at an Ethiopian mother and father who have made the toughest decision of their lives.
"I was prepared for a very sad story. I imagined the two women meeting, one giving up her child before lying down to die, almost like a kind of Christ story," Kjær says.
Masho and Roba's parents are HIV-positive and have been told they don’t have long to live. Eager local authorities and agents for a private orphanage have convinced them that the best thing they can do to save their youngest children is to give them up to a wealthy foreign family who will give them a secure upbringing.
When Kjær arrives in the provincial city of Dodola, the family welcomes her with open arms. They are not at all as she had expected.
"We were practically the same age and so were our children. In no time at all, I forgot that the houses are made of cow dung and all the other African clichés. Theirs was just a street like any other with lots of families. They seemed surprisingly resourceful and nurturing. They were physically very affectionate with their children and corrective, patient about talking with them and comforting them," she says.
"Mercy, Mercy" gives us a close-up look at African family life, where children and adults sleep together and the children fetch water and help with the cooking. Where the older siblings take care of the young ones, and Sinkenesh, the mother, braids Masho's hair while she sings to her and Hussen, the father, sleeps with his son Roba in his arms.
"It looked like a really good life for kids. There were lots of hugs and kisses and attention to spare, also for kids from other families, and a disciplining slap if they didn't do as they were told."
Losing their children forever
But amid the loving family life, the parents were struggling with intense pain and doubt. Had they really made the right decision? They had been told that it was best for their children. In Denmark, their children would get an education and could become anything – a doctor, a scientist, even president – and then return to Ethiopia when they were grown up.
"In human terms, it was a terrible process to witness. Especially because someone could have stopped it with a bit of financial assistance to the family, as could the Danish adoption agency, DanAdopt, the local authorities or the orphanage. But no one did. And the Danish parents were never informed about the true background for the adoption, but are repeatedly persuaded by DanAdopt that this was the last resort for the Ethiopian parents."
With much sorrow and many tears, but also hope, the children are handed over to their new father and mother who take them back to Denmark. End of story. Or, not quite.
Kjær can't get Sinkenesh and Hussen and their terrible sorrow out of her mind. She reorganises her life, lowering her expenses to a minimum, so she can afford to go back to Ethiopia. In all, she makes four more trips to Dodola, in addition to her regular visits with the adoptive parents in Holbæk, as she tracks the two families over a period of four and a half years.
Instead of a happy end, the drama in both Ethiopia and Denmark mounts. "I'm witnessing a development that becomes increasingly heartbreaking at both ends, while failure follows upon failure on the part of those who should be helping out," Kjær says.
Sinkenesh and her husband do not die from AIDS but get treatment and get better all the time. But they are left with a huge sense of loss and grief. As they struggle to get in touch with their children, the reality of adoption slowly sinks in: they have lost their children forever and every promise they were made has been broken.
They had been promised that they would stay in touch with their children, but that doesn't happen – the legally required reports about their children's welfare and development that they were supposed to receive never arrive. They had also expected that the Danish parents would become like kin to them, because that's what it's like in Ethiopia when you adopt someone's children – then you're family and help each other out. But no letters or financial assistance from Denmark arrive in Dodola. Meanwhile, in Denmark the adoption does not go as hoped, and the consequences prove disastrous.
A brutal eye-opener
Adoption from Ethiopia has made headlines in recent years and sparked controversy in many countries. American and Australian media, among others, have carried stories about parents who are conned into giving their children up for adoption on the assumption that it's just for a temporary stay in a foreign country where the children will get an amazing education. Or stories about couples who get an older orphan at an orphanage and only months later, when the child has learned to speak his or her new language, learn that the child has parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents who are expecting the child to return in a few years and help out the family.
There is huge demand from childless couples in rich countries, and the UN and several NGOs have emphatically warned that the whole adoption industry is fast turning into child trafficking.
And what about the children? Torn away from their parents and their familiar surroundings, they are transplanted to a new life, a new language and a strange culture. Some cope, but not all.
Would we ever let a Danish child undergo the social and psychological experiment that Roba, Masho and hundreds of other children are subjected to? They say children are adaptable. "Mercy, Mercy" raises the question where to draw the line in that respect as well. For Kjær, the making of the film has been a real, and very brutal, eye-opener.
"There were many times when I felt like I was stuck in a swamp of ethical dilemmas and wished I didn't have to make this film. But I did. Because if I hadn't, Masho and Roba would just be more anonymous numbers in a sad statistic and we would have learned nothing from their family's story."
She is left with profound wonder at the pervasive lack of ethics in the international adoption system.
"I thought people who worked in adoption were the good guys. That adoption was a merciful and loving act for children in need. Now I don't know what to think. There may be some well-meaning individuals, but in the name of mercy they are creating the vast human disaster that I have witnessed."
Dorrit Saietz is a journalist at the Danish daily Politiken and has written extensively about ethical adoption issues.