Story of boys who 'disappeared' with father 11 years ago

Johnny Summerton - Paris, France

In 1998 two boys, aged seven and eight, were declared missing after their father, Xavier Fortin, abducted his sons rather than return them to their mother who had custody of both.

At least that was how the story was first reported when the boys were "discovered" last week in the village of Masset in the département of l'Ariège in the southwest of the country, where they had been living with their father.

It's a tale which has lasted more than a decade but has been unfolding over the past week.

Fortin is currently in police custody.

The two boys, Théo and Manu (they changed their names during their years "on the run" from Okwari and Shahi-Yena) now 18 and 17 respectively, have spoken publicly for the first time about how they went "missing and their desire now to see their 52-year-old father released.

In an interview with the regional daily, La Dépêche du Midi, they gave an insight into their "secret" life, how they had chosen to remain with their father all those years ago rather than return to their mother, and maintained that they hadn't been held against their will.

Before the boys disappeared they said that they had always lived a marginalised kind of existence but it had been a happy childhood in a solid family structure.

"When relations between our parents started to deteriorate we were seven and eight and our mother wanted to remove us from what we knew   - just like that," they said.

"We weren't able to see our father, our mother worked and we lived in an apartment and we were looked after by a childminder."

When in December 1998 Fortin was allowed access rights during the Christmas holidays   the "adventure" began for the two boys.

"At that age it wasn't possible to make a choice between our mother and our father, we just opted for a life which would make us happiest," they said.
  "When it started, we treated it as a game."

The boys reveal that over more than a decade they frequently changed both location and name.

But they insist they were far from being social outcasts and on the contrary had met an incredible number of people.

"It has been an enriching experience," they told the newspaper.

They explain how their father, a qualified teacher, gave them lessons at home and they insist that they'd had a first rate education.

"Those who think we were in some way modern day Mowglis, our answer is that we are 10 times more mature than others of our age."

And moreover Fontin had never prevented them from getting in touch with their mother.

"Our father made us write to her often. She never replied," they said.

Their goal now is to rebuild a relationship with their mother and to see their father released from police custody.

So a very different perspective to the one that might have initially appeared in the media on what happened over the course of a decade from those whose story it, after all, is.

But wait, there is of course another side to all of this - that of the mother, Catherine Martin.

And the day after Théo and Manu gave their exclusive to La Dépêche du Midi, Martin's response and reaction could be read in the national daily, Le Parisien.

The 45-year old said she had spent the last decade hoping to hear from her two sons and contrary to what they had implied in their interview, they had not written directly to her over the years.

"There were only four letters addressed to the magistrate (following the case) dictated by Xavier Fortin and copied by the children," she said.

"And just once there was a letter posted from Morocco when their photos had been published, to say that there had been no "abduction" involved."

Although Martin had custody of the two children and had the full force of French justice on her side, in that the two boys were taken and hidden from her without her consent, she is not going to press ahead with a civil suit in which she would be the "victim"

Instead she wants to help pave the way to building a relationship with both of them.

She has entrusted the delicate task of going about rebuilding a relationship with the two sons she hasn't seen since 1998 to their brother and her oldest son, 24-year-old Nicolas.

"Every word, every false move could hurt them, and a compromise has to be found," she says.

"They still feel divided. It has become their obsession to support their father and prevent him from being imprisoned.

Martin said that in a recent discussion she had with Théo and Manu, one of them told her that they had always been on the move, staying with travellers or the circus.

"He (Fortin) told everyone around him that he was a widow and the boys were instructed to say that I was dead."

For her though the lost years are not as important as now looking forward to the future.

"None of that really matters now," she said

So there you have it. The same story told form different perspectives and a mother beginning to rediscover two of her sons after more than a decade of separation.

Their father, Fortin, is due to appear in court on March 17