By STEPHEN BEVAN
She’s happy her daughter Zahara has a better life in America with Angelina Jolie, but in her first-ever interview, the child’s mother raises disturbing questions about how she was adopted…
Her credentials as a caring superstar could hardly be bettered. Angelina Jolie, a mother of four, is as famous for her well-publicized adoptions of children from Third World countries as she is for her Oscar-winning movies and marriage to Brad Pitt.
As a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees for the past six years, the beautiful 32-year-old actress has traveled frequently to impoverished African states, often to the heart of a conflict, to highlight the plight of the world’s most desperate people.
Only last month she visited Western Sudan to bring to the world’s attention the appalling conditions endured by an estimated 2.5 million people who have fled brutal ethnic fighting in the war-torn province of West Darfur.
The visit took the film star within an hour’s flight of neighboring Ethiopia – the birthplace of her daughter Zahara, whom she adopted amid much publicity in July 2005 in what seemed to be a flamboyant act of charity.
Indeed, even the most cynical Hollywood-watcher couldn’t fail to be moved by Angelina’s description of the hell from which her new daughter had been removed. The little girl’s natural mother had, according to Angelina, died of AIDS.
Malnourished and suffering from rickets, six-month-old Zahara was it was claimed, just days away from death when Angelina found her at an orphanage in Addis Ababa, nursed her back to health, and adopted her.
Although they knew Zahara had family back in Ethiopia, Angelina and Brad have chosen not to visit Awassa, the lakeside town where the little girl was born. Had they done so, they may well have been shocked by what they found.
The Mail on Sunday has discovered that not only is Zahara’s mother, Mentewab Dawit Lebiso, alive and well, but that the man who arranged Zahara’s adoption has been waging a campaign of threats and intimidation against her family.
When rumors surfaced last week in America that all was not as it appeared with the paperwork, the American headquarters of the international adoption agency Wide Horizons For Children initially insisted that Zahara’s mother was dead. And yet in Ethiopia, the man who brought Zahara to the agency knows Mentewab is alive and has been attempting to shut her up.
Last week, The Mail on Sunday traveled to Zahara’s home town and talked, through interpreters, not only to the extended family but to Mentewab herself.
Although aged 24, she is struggling, between selling onions in a market, to finish high school. It is a measure of the desperate lack of opportunity afforded to young Ethiopians: in this part of the world, many people don’t start any sort of formal learning until they are in their mid-teens.
In taped interviews, Mentewab, her mother Almaz Elfneh, 45, and sisters Frehiwot, 18, and Zinash, 20, told a disturbing story of rape, grinding poverty, lies, and dubious official paperwork.
It was this, rather than AIDS, which took Zahara on the extraordinary journey from her starving family to an orphanage in Addis Ababa and on to the Hollywood mansion owned by two of the world’s most famous film stars.
And while the American headquarters of Wide Horizons For Children and Angelina may well be oblivious to the harsh realities of what goes on in adoptions such as these, the revelations have come as no surprise to the man who arranged the adoption for the agency, ‘Mr Fix-It’ Girma Degu.
Indeed, rather than try to deny it when confronted with the family’s account of what happened, he went straight to the house where Mentewab was staying with her sisters in Awassa. There, he threatened to have one of her sisters jailed for talking to journalists.
We talked to Mentewab in the dirt yard outside her uncle’s home. Her story starts in 2004, many miles away from Awassa in the town of Shone where Mentewab was staying with her grandmother while she attended school.
One night, when her grandmother was away on business, a stranger broke in and subjected her to a brutal rape. When, a few months later, it became impossible to hide the fact that Mentewab was pregnant, her relatives disowned her.
“I felt so lonely,” said Mentewab in her native Amharic language.
“I thought about having an abortion but I didn’t have the money. There was nothing I could do.”
In the absence of other options, Mentewab, who was determined to finish her education, went to stay with a cousin in nearby Hosanna. Her baby girl was born at Hosanna hospital on January 7, 2005 – Christmas Dayin Ethiopia.
Mentewab called her Yemasrech, which means ‘good news’, although she was later renamed Tena Adam, the name of a local herb.
Mentewab struggled to look after her daughter with virtually no money. When her mother Almaz learned of her plight, she came to Hosanna.
Mentewab said: “She told me, ‘It’s all right, we can raise this baby together.’ I think she thought I might kill myself if she didn’t help me.”
All three returned to Awassa, where they stayed with Mentewab’s uncle in a gloomy, cramped, three-room hut with a mud floor and tin roof on the outskirts of town. Almaz looked after the baby while Mentewab worked as a laborer on a building site.
Her meager wages paid barely enough to feed them.
“Sometimes all I had was a piece of bread all day,” Mentewab said. Finally, when her uncle asked them to leave his house and find their own place to rent, their family life went into freefall.
“My baby was crying all the time because she was hungry.
“I thought she was going to die because there was no food, so I ran away,” Mentewab said.
It was the act of a frightened and ill-educated girl but her decision to flee was to have far-reaching consequences.
Almaz said: “After Mentewab left I didn’t have money to buy her food so the baby lost a lot of weight. She was really skinny. I was even thinking she could die. I went to the Kebele (the local council) and told them my daughter ran away and had left the baby with me.
“I said to them, ‘Please take the baby before she dies.’ They asked me to bring three people to witness that the mother had run away and that I could not afford to keep the baby.”
Almaz had already been introduced to Girma, a local man, by her sister-in-law and he agreed to take the baby after the Kebele gave its consent.
“Girma took the baby to Addis Ababa,” Almaz said.
“He promised he would keep in touch. He said he would bring back the baby to visit after five months and he would send me a picture.
“He also promised to introduce me to the family that would adopt her.”
Almaz said she never told Girma or the authorities that her daughter had died.
“But then Girma came to me and told me that the baby had been adopted and taken abroad. He said there will be journalists coming to you and you must deny the whole story and say it is not your granddaughter.”
After stories first began to circulate two years ago that Zahara’s birth mother was still alive, Almaz says a furious Girma dragged her to the local council offices and accused her of lying. He also tried to force her to say that Zahara was not her granddaughter.
“He brought this woman who claimed Tena Adam was her daughter. He tried everything to get me to say that it’s not my granddaughter. He even threatened that he’d put me in jail and have me tortured.”
But Almaz refused to budge.
The revelation that Zahara’s mother is alive and living on £1 a week while she struggles to complete her education will come as a huge embarrassment to Wide Horizons For Children, which claims to have placed more than 10,000 children from all over the world with Western families since 1974.
Dr. Tsegaye Berhe, head of the agency in Ethiopia, said he had been told Zahara’s mother was dead at the time of the adoption and had the official papers to prove it.
“We have to trust the documents we received. She (Almaz) has signed, three witnesses have signed, but the document is saying something different from what she is saying now. She said her daughter had died.”
And in a move some might regard as intimidation, Dr. Berhe added that he had asked the government to instruct Ethiopian police to investigate whether the grandmother had lied to the Kebele.
“We have already talked to the government. The grandmother has given two statements. One that the mother is dead, another that she is alive. So we have already told the government what she is doing and that it has to take action now because it is the government she’s made to look foolish.
“It’s a big scandal to say something then another thing the next day. That will make a big problem for her.”
Dr. Berhe produced the paperwork he said was signed by Almaz and three other witnesses testifying that Zahara’s mother had died – but refused to allow The Mail on Sunday to copy or photograph it.
We have spoken to one of the three witnesses named in the document, Asegadech Asefaw, who backs up Almaz’s account that she told officials her daughter had run away. Another of Almaz’s former neighbors, Bekelech Haile, says she also confirmed Almaz’s version of events but, strangely, her name does not appear on the document shown to The Mail on Sunday. The witnesses say they have never heard of the name that does.
Almaz said: “I cannot read or write. I don’t know what they wrote but what I said was that my daughter ran away, not that she was dead.”
The adoption agency says it makes efforts to establish links between the adoptive parents and the child’s family.
Dr. Berhe said he always arranges for the adoptive parents to go to the village to meet surviving family members, “take pictures and videos and even have some correspondence”.
“It is very important because when the child grows, we don’t want him or her to lose their identity. He or she is going to ask a lot of questions, ‘Why did you adopt me? Who are my parents? Where do I come from?’ These are the questions the child is going to ask.”
Yet, according to Zahara’s birth family, Angelina has never visited their home in Awassa, where donkeys, cows and goats vie with cars and trucks for space on the road. In fact, she has never contacted them or even sent a picture of Zahara. Dr Berhe does not dispute that Angelina has never met the family but blames the overwhelming media interest at the time of the adoption.
“There were a lot of journalists following her,’ he said. ‘She was not able to travel as much as she would have liked or we would have liked her to do.”
As for Angelina’s failure to make any contact, he said the agency gets regular reports on how Zahara is doing from social workers in the United States “but with the connection between the blood family and the adoptive parents, it’s up to them. We cannot force them”.
Angelina Jolie was unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, Wide Horizons For Children moved rapidly to distance itself from Girma, the man who supplied both Zahara and the paperwork apparently proving she was an orphan.
Although Girma told The Mail on Sunday that he worked for the adoption agency and has distributed business cards claiming he represents it, Wide Horizons For Children says he is not an employee but is employed by an orphanage in Awassa. It does not deny, however, that it was he who brought Zahara to its officials.
“What he has done is tantamount to kidnap,” Mentewab claimed bitterly.
“He took my daughter and just disappeared with her saying I was dead.”
She recognizes that Zahara has far better prospects with Angelina and Brad Pitt.
“She will have a better life with Angelina. If she had stayed with me she could have died.
“I’m happy to see my daughter in a better life, in a better place. The thing that makes me upset is that Angelina is saying I’m dead – I’m alive and have never had AIDS.”
She would also like Angelina to bring her daughter to visit her birthplace and family.
“She must know her country, she must know her family, that’s where her identity is,” she added.
For Angelina Jolie, champion of the dispossessed, it would be a simple task.