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Sierra Leone: home at last

12-03-2008 Feature

Sierra Leone's internal conflict between the Revolutionary United Front and government forces ended in 2002. Countless families were split up by the fighting and many are still trying to trace their loved ones six years on. The ICRC's Abu Bakr Gamanga reports.

   
  ©ICRC    
 
  Amie with her mother following their tearful reunion.    
     
 

   
  ©ICRC    
 
  Amie Foray and her mother display the reunion handover certificate.    
      

The ICRC is the only organization in Sierra Leone providing national and cross-border tracing services for families separated by conflict. It is particularly concerned by the plight of unaccompanied children and, working closely with the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, it has helped reunite thousands of them with parents or other kin. For dozens of children, however, the search goes on. Some were so young at the time that they do not even know their parents’ full names or the name of their home town, let alone other details.

Adama Foray, her husband, and their four children lived in the village of Tungie, in eastern Sierra Leone. Their only daughter, Amie, lived with Batu, her maternal grandmother. During a devastating attack on the village, Batu lost sight of four-year-old Amie.

Batu describes what happened: " The sound of gunfire filled the entire village. I slipped out the back of the house with Amie and hid nearby. Later, when the firing subsided, we spent three nights traveling through the forest on foot, resting during the day to avoid being caught by the gunmen. "

 Four-year-old loses sight of her grandmother – for 10 years  

Together with others trying to escape the violence, Batu and Amie finally arrived in a village not far from their home and sought refuge there. But the respite didn't last – sudden rumours of an imminent attack caused chaos and panic, and everyone fled. Amie, it seems, was by this time off playing with friends. " When I saw people running away, " she recalls, " I followed them into the forest, but nobody could tell me where my gra ndmother was. "

Amie did not see her family again for nearly 10 years. People who noticed that the little girl was alone in the group began looking after her while they were hiding in the forest. Together they walked over 50 km to the Bo district in Southern Province. The ensuing years were spent fleeing from one place to another until Amie and the people looking after her eventually settled in the town of Pendembu, in eastern Sierra Leone. By then it was 2001. Amie was registered by Save the Children UK in 2003 and then by the ICRC in 2005 in the hope that her family could be traced and she could be reunited with them.

 Family accepts that their little girl must be dead  

Some members of the community, meanwhile, had told Batu and Adama that Amie had been killed by gunmen while everyone was fleeing. They claimed to have seen her body. As time went on and there was no news of Amie, her family accepted that she must indeed be dead.

The search for Amie's parents began in 2005. A breakthrough occurred when a local chief informed the tracing team that there were two women in his area named Batu who had lost children during the conflict. In September 2007, enquiries finally led to Adama and her family in Geindema. Adama’s first words when she found out that her only daughter was still alive were " Thank God!” Batu merely wept.

 And then a miracle!  

ICRC tracing staff acted swiftly and, on 24 October 2007, Amie was finally reunited with her parents. With the entire village present for the occasion, she climbed out of the ICRC vehicle and looked at her loved ones for the first time in 10 long years. Her eyes filled with tears as she embraced her grandmother, then her mother. Weighed down by grief for so long, her fam ily was now simply overwhelmed. It was a miracle!