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Congo-Kinshasa: Marie, a child soldier, returns home

11-06-2007 Feature

Forcibly enrolled into an armed group when she was 10, Marie has experienced everything in life but the joys and sorrows of childhood. After four years marked by violence and ceaseless wanderings in the Ugandan forest, she managed, with the ICRC's help, to return to her home village.

 
© ICRC / cd-e-00431 
 
Marie, forcibly enrolled in an armed group, was separated from her family for four years.    
       
Reestablishing family links 
 
The ICRC, a neutral and independent humanitarian organization, has a mission to protect and assist victims of armed conflicts and other situations of violence. In pursuit of this mission, it seeks to restore links between family members who have lost touch with one another. People who have no other means of re-establishing and maintaining links with their families can use the Red Cross message service ­– a network run with the operational support of the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In areas where the ICRC maintains a presence, it identifies unaccompanied children, including former child soldiers, in order to put them back in touch with and – if it is in the interest of the children to do so – reunite them with their families. 
 
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Marie's odyssey began just over four years ago in the province of Nord-Kivu, deep in the heart of the equatorial forest. There is no electricity or running water here and the only roads are narrow paths. The villagers bear the full brunt of the fighting between the numerous armed groups that plunder the region and many have had to flee their homes, leaving everything behind.

Marie (1), who was only 10 at the time, was forced by armed men to carry looted goods back to their camp. Unfortunately for her, the camp lay beyond the Congolese border, in far-away Uganda. Having no idea where she was or how to get back to her village, she was unable to flee, and so she remained there, forcibly enrolled in the armed group.

 A village off the map  

The commander of the group noticed Marie and decided to make her part of his personal guard. When he was later killed in a clash with government troops, Marie was taken away with other prisoners and placed in a re-education centre, where she met an ICRC delegate. In Uganda as elsewhere, the ICRC visits places of detention to monitor the treatment afforded to detainees. 

Marie immediately said that she wished to join her family. With the agreement of the Ugandan authorities, the ICRC initiated tracing procedures. It was no easy job to locate Marie's village, which does not appear on any map, but the problem was eventually solved with the help of the authorities of Nord-Kivu and the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

However, other, more important, questions remained unanswered. Would the parents want to take back a daughter who had been a " fighter " ? Would the villagers be welcoming? What would be the reaction of the authorities? In short, would it really be advisable to send Marie back to her village?

 A moving reunion  

These questions were quickly resolved. Marie's parents, who had recently returned to the village themselves, were overjoyed to learn that their little daughter was alive and might be joining them soon. One month after the ICRC had initiated the first contact, and with the consent of both parties – parents and child – delegates from the organization therefore accompanied Marie back home.

The village was in a turmoil of excitement when the small party arrived. Dozens of people ran up to greet the young girl, who could not restrain herself for very long. When she saw her parents and her younger siblings, she burst into tears.

The ICRC delegates still had to make sure that the young girl would be accepted by everyone, that she would not be arrested, that no reprisals would be taken against her and, above all, that she would not be enrolled again into other armed groups operating in the neighbourhood. Leaving the family to their rejoicing, they went about explaining matters to the local authorities and government security forces securing the area and persuading them to cooperate. The ICRC would later seek to obtain guarantees from any other armed groups with whom it might be in contact in the near future.

The delegates visited Marie a few weeks later to make sure that she was well reintegrated into her village.

In 2006, 641 separated children, including 259 former child soldiers, were reunited with their families by the ICRC or the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

(1) Pseudonym