Three orphans return to family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
In July 2007 two nuns appeared at the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Brazzaville to request that the organization repatriate three young orphans to Zongo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The story of a journey filled with apprehension and joy, by Valery Mbaoh and Latif M’Backe.
Zongo, situated directly across the Ubangi river from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, is where the orphans were awaited by the eldest brother of their dead father. According to the nuns, this uncle could care for the orphans and offer them a family environment once again.
The children were all minors. The oldest, Adèle,* was 14 years old; Lucie* was 11 and Jean* 4 years old. In 1997 they and their parents took refuge in the Republic of the Congo to escape the violence that erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after the fall of President Mobutu. After both the mother and the father died, the children were taken in by Our Lady of Nazareth orphanage in Brazzaville. The orphanage had already contacted the uncle in Zongo but could not cover the cost of travel.
After the uncle declared himself wi lling to take in the children, the nuns obtained from the embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo the laissez-passer required for the trip. “The only thing they still need is money to pay for airplane tickets,” they told ICRC delegates. The delegates explained that uniting the children with their uncle would take time, but that they would do everything they could to help, if the children were willing.
Two ICRC staff went to the orphanage to meet the children on 18 July 2007. The children were obviously surprised by the visit, and eagerly embraced the prospect of one day joining their uncle in Zongo. “I don’t want to stay here,” one of them said seriously. The two others chimed in: “We want to go to our uncle!”
The administrative wheels began to turn. At each visit from the ICRC the children became more impatient, asked more questions, and ended up no longer believing that they would ever be on their way. But when the time finally did come to take the plunge, Lucie said she no longer wanted to go. Adèle, however, said she was going, and Jean – the youngest – also remained eager to go. Torn between her friends in the orphanage and her brother and sister, Lucie remained hesitant. Despite her anxiety, which she could not hide, she finally decided: “Me too, I want to go!” It had taken six months to assess the situation in Zongo, obtain the required authorizations and prepare for the trip.
An eventful first flight
Finally, it was the day of departure. When the ICRC staff arrived at the orphanage, they found the children waiting impatiently and ready to leave. After the last embraces, Lucie burst into tears, realizing perhaps that she would never see her playmates again. The siblings glanced at those who had cared for them and waved good-bye. Then the ICRC car set off for the airport.
While waiting to boa rd the plane, Jean pranced around happily but his sisters were anxious. With the minutes ticking away and the departure time approaching, small sandwiches and drinks were served. The specially chartered ICRC flight taking the children to Bangui was to last four hours.
On the tarmac, the pilot announced that the flight was leaving. The children, feeling confident, boarded the aircraft without hesitation. Then the engines fired up with a deafening roar and the children understood that they were leaving Brazzaville – where the youngest of them was born, and where their parents were laid to rest – forever. Lucie, followed by the others, waved good-bye with an innocent hand.
The weather was rough and patches of severe turbulence made the passengers vomit and grip the armrests with fear. The two girls, sitting side-by-side, held each other firmly by the arms. After landing in Bangui, smiles were once again on the children’s faces. They were taken to an ICRC residence to spend the night.
Going to Zongo from Bangui is simply a matter of crossing the river Ubangi, which takes only about 10 minutes. Waiting for the children on the opposite bank were their relatives, volunteers from the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the head of the local Red Cross chapter and representatives of the local authorities.
Getting to grips with a new environment
As soon as he saw the children, their uncle, around 60 years old, formerly a clerk in the Zongo district court, was bursting with excitement. “This is a very happy moment for me,” he said. “I cannot express all that I feel. I could not afford to go to Brazzaville to bring back my younger brother’s children. I’m happy to see them return to the land of their ancestors.”
Once the landing formalities were completed, the small c rowd turned into the boulevard lined with mango trees leading to the family house. Zongo, a town of 5,000 souls, was still healing from the effects of the lengthy war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The house, on Mobutu Avenue, was an old clay structure with zinc sheet roofing. The uncle immediately introduced people to one another, took care of the baggage and helped the children to settle down into what would henceforth be their home.
Apparently disoriented, Lucie glanced around the house and lowered her head. Her older sister Adèle said nothing, while Jean bounced about to the beat of the pulsating music that filtered through from the church across the street.
As neighbours crowded around, ICRC delegates explained the reasons for the family reunification and gave the uncle beans, sugar, rice, corn flour and other basic items needed to support the children.
The delegates recommended that the children be enrolled in school. The head of the local Red Cross chapter promised to make the necessary arrangements.
Finally, the time came for the ICRC staff to leave. Pictures were taken and many people embraced. Lucie and Adèle burst into tears. On their faces you could see not only joy but also the apprehension and fear of having to face a completely new situation.
* Not their real names.