Jean-Thierry Cheyroux, 56, doesn’t remember his mother’s face or the name of the road he lived on as a child, but when he sees the volcanoes from the aircraft window, for the first time in decades he feels at home. The last time he made this journey was in 1967; he was seven years old and flying in the opposite direction – from Réunion Island, where he was born, to France, where he now lives.
“I remember being on that plane as a child, and being so scared that I was crying. The stewardess had to take me to see the cockpit to calm me down,” he recalls now in a park in the capital, Saint-Denis, less than an hour’s drive from his childhood home.
His older sister, Jessie Moenner, sitting next to him, adds: “He was crying and screaming because he wanted to jump off the plane. He didn’t want to go to France.”
Cheyroux and his two sisters were among more than 2,000 children removed from the tropical island between 1963 and 1982 as part of a French government programme to repopulate increasingly deserted areas of rural postwar France. Cheyroux now believes he was forcibly taken from his mother, Marie-Thérese Abrousse, who had three children out of wedlock and was trying to raise them alone in the impoverished neighbourhood of Coeur-Saignant.
“She cleaned houses for white people on the island,” Moenner recalls. “She had dark skin and almond eyes. She was very secretive. She was a woman who had suffered a lot.”
The people of Réunion are descendants of slaves brought there by French colonisers to work on sugar plantations. The island is a departement, essentially an overseas territory of France. In the 1960s, the MP for Réunion, Michel Debré, set up a scheme to move children from the island to mainland France. His government promised islanders that their children would be sent to the best schools and be adopted by loving, rich French parents who could provide for them in a way that most creole people could not. Residents of Réunion spoke of the red government trucks that would roam the streets after school picking up children; and parents being forced to initial or fingerprint papers that they couldn’t read.
Cheyroux’s return to the island last week and his search for answers coincided with the first meeting of a committee appointed by the French government to document the stories of Réunion’s lost generation, almost 15 years after the scandal was brought to light by Jean-Jacques Martial, who tried to sue the French government for €1bn in 2002 for “kidnapping and sequestration of minors, roundup and deportation”.
In February, after years of hard-fought campaigns by dozens of displaced children, who want a formal apology from the French government and compensation for children like Cheyroux and Moenner, a fact-finding committee was appointed to investigate the issue. But for Cheyroux, the committee can do little to make up for the trauma of being taken away from Réunion.
“For years, I wanted to suppress this part of my identity,” he says. “I felt guilt; I felt abandoned. I wanted to leave the past behind, and look to the future, to focus on my career. Funnily enough, after I came back, I met old friends who remembered playing with me as a child, but I didn’t remember them. It was as if I left that little boy behind when I went to France.”
The death of Cheyroux’s adoptive mother a year and a half ago triggered a new sense of longing for his lost childhood. After he came to Réunion, he launched an appeal on local TV and in newspapers urging anyone who knew him as a child to come forward, hoping to find traces of his past.
“I wanted to find my file in the Réunion archives, which contains all the administrative details of my deportation to France and my adoption, but I still haven’t found it,” says Cheyroux. “I want to find out if my birth mother abandoned me. I also wanted to find any surviving family members or friends. I wanted to rediscover the senses, the smells, the feelings of Réunion.”
Children like Cheyroux were taken to France in batches of 30. First, they were kept in a temporary home in Réunion where they were taught French and to stop speaking in their native creole.
From there, they were taken to various parts of France where adoptive parents could come to take them home. Cheyroux and his sisters were chosen by a couple from Auch, a commune in the south-west of the country. They were the only children with dark skin in their neighbourhood, and were teased and picked on by their friends. “They’d call me chocolat or negro or noireau,” he says.
Far from Debré’s promises of finding loving homes, many were forced into a life that amounted to slavery, working long hours on farms, eating and sleeping with farm animals instead of with their adoptive families, with no chance of escape or to contact their families in Réunion. “Some children suffered so much from the situation that they killed themselves,” says Jean-Philippe Jean-Marie, the president of an NGO called Rasinn Anler, meaning “roots in the sky”, which helps Réunion’s exiled children find their families on the island. “Many of the children were abused physically, sexually, emotionally,” he says.
Jean-Marie has been contacted by more than 150 people from Réunion and France who believe they were displaced or had children taken away. In the last decade, dozens of displaced creole children, now in their 50s and 60s, have started returning to the island to find answers about their deportation. Jean-Marie believes the French government at the time falsified documents and forced illiterate parents to sign abandonment forms deliberately to transfer the island’s children to France. “This was modern-day slavery,” he says. “It was a deeply traumatic period.”
Cheyroux and Moenner were luckier than some of the other children. “Our adoptive mother loved us and tried to build a real family,” says Cheyroux. “But our father was an authoritarian man. He tried to break the familial ties between us. He wouldn’t let us play together or even talk to each other. There were strict timings if we wanted to use the toilet. We weren’t allowed to eat at the same table with him. He would call me names like bico and arabe,” he says, referring to racist French words for dark-skinned people. “It never ever felt like a real family.”
Moenner’s experience, in the same home, was worse. “I was 11 when I came to France, and I had memories of the island so I rejected the adoption. I always told my French parents that I would go back and find my real mother one day. I was sexually abused by my father, and it completely changed my character. It made me aggressive. I used to sleep with a knife under my bed,” she says. Moenner recalls life in Réunion as a child. “I remember growing up with my grandmother. She lived in poverty and while she was working I was alone at home or playing in the streets. But for me it was all I knew and I was happy. It was the happiest years of my life.”
In 1977, Moenner came back to the island to find her birth mother. “I spent an entire day in a taxi, speaking only French and no creole trying to find my family. And in the end, when I found my mother, I fell in her arms. I stayed in Réunion for three years, but after that we had a fight, and because of my character, I never made up with her.”
Cheyroux never tried to contact his birth mother, even after his older sister found her. They hadn’t even spoken on the phone. Fears of rejection and finding out that perhaps she had purposefully abandoned her children kept him away. “I don’t have any pictures or memories of my mother, of her eyes, her voice.” When the siblings returned to Réunion last week, they found that their mother had died six years ago.
“A part of me expected that,” says Cheyroux. “Another part was hopeful that I would meet her. But I met cousins and other members of the family. They told me that after my adoption they had looked for me and my sisters. They said that whenever they visited France they always went to Réunionnais festivals or gatherings, hoping to run into me, but of course they had no way of knowing what my new name was or what I looked like.”
For Cheyroux, the visit to Réunion will be the first of many. “When I came back here, I felt like my whole life had been stolen. But now I finally have a link to Réunion and I will come back whenever I can.”