The case of four Croatian couples accused of trafficking children from the Democratic Republic of Congo has sparked a fierce debate on the ethics of adopting from poor and troubled nations.
The eight were arrested at a Zambian airport in December with four children they were trying to bring to Croatia, and face trial next month.
It has been illegal for foreigners to adopt in the DRC since 2017 but that has not stopped many children leaving the conflict-plagued country.
Around 100 have been adopted by Croatians over the last decade, with eight cases still pending, according to officials in Zagreb.
But the trafficking charges levelled at the couples held in Zambia has set off a heated row in Croatia, with the couples accused at home of trying to "buy children".
"If one pays for adoption... there is only one word for it: child trafficking!" read one headline in the popular Vecernji List newspaper.
Parents who have already adopted from the DRC say they have been stigmatised by the social media storm the case has unleashed, with some of those held in Zambia branded paedophiles.
One mother, Djurdjica Krmelic, told Croatian television how her DRC-born daughter had asked her "what to say in school if they ask her if I bought her."
'Children need families'
Other Croatian parents told AFP that they only decided to adopt from the DRC because it was so hard at home because of red tape and the dwindling number of children available.
But they admitted the process was fraught with stress and unease, including travel to third countries like Zambia or Kenya to meet children due to instability and conflict in the DRC.
Many children have been orphaned by decades of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By JOHN WESSELS (AFP)
"There was an immense uncertainty, immense fear whether it would all eventually end up well," one woman who adopted children from the DRC told AFP.
The mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said she endured months of sleepless nights as her lawyer in the DRC tried to get all the legal documents finalised.
"There are a lot of children who need a family.... and I wanted to be a mother," said the woman, who was unable to have children of her own because of cancer.
But since the arrest of the eight Croatians -- who have been charged alongside a senior Zambian immigration official -- adopting from the DRC has been questioned.
Foreigners have not been able to adopt legally from the DRC since 2017 when a new family law code was passed, Gauthier Luyela, the director of child protection at the country's Ministry of Gender, Family and Children, told AFP.
Until a new state agency to oversee foreign adoptions under the code is created, he said, "no international adoptions can be examined".
Luyela dismissed any notion that Croatian families had been granted special exemption by courts to adopt in the meantime.
"It's unequivocal," he said.
"There is no case-by-case basis," he added. "I don't know how they managed to get these court rulings."
But some Croatian parents insisted they had received approval from Congolese courts for their adoptions.
"If it was illegal why did the authorities not question or prevent that?" one parent told AFP.
Wracked by decades of war, corruption is endemic in the DRC, with the country ranking 166th out of 180 in Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Luyela said it was possible that the children in Zambia may have been "stolen" and trafficked before being handed over to the Croatian couples there.
A number of African countries including Ethiopia and Kenya have banned or suspended foreign adoptions in recent years.
Zagreb has vowed to support the Croatians charged in Zambia as they prepare to face trial in early March.
"The situation is serious and it worries me," Croatia's Justice Minister Ivan Malenica told reporters earlier in the month.
"We are continuing the diplomatic battle for both the adult Croatian citizens and the children", who have Croatian identity papers, he said.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic has called for an end to the "hate speech" the case has sparked, with much online venom aimed at one of the would-be parents held in Zambia who is transgender.
"An unbearable witch hunt is taking place," said Ana, a 44-year-old jurist from Zagreb who adopted a daughter from the DRC in 2021.
Ana is still hoping to adopt a child in Croatia but said the process has gone nowhere in years.
"My phone remains silent," she sighed.