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Central African Republic: getting the kids home

03-12-2010 Feature

Conflict in eastern CAR and the surrounding region continues to drive families apart; children are abducted from their homes by armed groups and forced to go on a perilous journey from which many do not return. The ICRC works to reunite the children who do find freedom with their families. The ICRC's Ewan Watson accompanied some of these children on their trip home.

Seven in the morning, and 12-year-old Jacques stands in a humid waiting room at Bangui airport, wolfing down peanuts and sporting a bright new shirt slightly too big for him, chatting to the other kids taking the flight with the ready grin of a carefree little boy. Just a few hours now and he will see his family again, but this is not a normal trip home. Only the bemused expression that occasionally moves across Jacques' face suggests he is unable to take it all in.

An ordeal no child should face

One day in early 2008, Jacques finished school then paid a visit to his grandmother on the outskirts of Obo, his home village in southeast Central African Republic (CAR). Unfortunately, the day did not end as benignly as it began; an armed group attack on the village took Jacques by surprise as he headed home alone, and he was abducted. "I've never felt so scared. I just wanted my dad to come and make the men leave me alone, but they grabbed me and I had to go with them away from Obo. They told me to stop crying or they'd hit me again."

Thus began a tremendous two-and-a-half year ordeal no 12-year-old could be expected to translate into words, a horrific seemingly never-ending journey across borders, through armed clashes, with death constantly hovering overhead. Jacques holds his breath until seemingly ready to burst, exhales, and begins speaking: "Those men have no hearts. They made me walk with heavy loads twice my size. Once they nearly killed me when they thought I had tried to escape. There were many other boys and girls like me who were made to work, but we were not allowed to talk to each other."

New travelling companions bring solace

There are no such constraints now; Jacques clearly relishes, perhaps finds solace in his travelling companions, five children who can relate to him having also recently escaped the clutches of an armed group. Sabrine, a 17-year-old abducted for well over a year while on the way to meet her mother working in the field, explains what happened: “I was treated like a slave; I was forced to be a wife to one of the men. All day marching through the bush, looking for a chance to escape, being beaten if we slowed our pace. That is not a life. One night the men returned after attacking a town, they were tired, some were wounded, there was so much confusion I managed to slip away without being spotted. I was lucky, I felt bad for the other children who stayed behind.”

Escape the only option

Jacques picks up the story from there: "When I escaped I found myself in a town I didn't know. I asked some villagers for help and they took me to the Red Cross who looked after me." The Central African Red Cross in northeastern CAR contacted the ICRC, which brought the children to Bangui and began the process of tracing their families. This flight marks the successful outcome of that search: the trip home.

Tearful return of a child thought lost forever

These are nervous hours for Sabrine, who has a new addition to the family, a baby daughter, to introduce to her parents in southern Sudan. In Obo meanwhile, Jacques' family has taken shelter from the midday sun to wait under the trees by the airstrip, unable to believe that the son they thought forever lost to them is about to step out of an ICRC plane safe and sound. His dad Jean-Paul was the town mayor at the time Jacques was taken: "That day in 2008 we entered a nightmare we are only emerging from now. The suffering is indescribable. The work of the Red Cross has brought us our son and our lives back. How can we find words now to express our joy?"

No words can do justice to the tearful scene that plays out as Jacques touches home soil again. For his father, through the relief and happiness there are already plans emerging. "Jacques has lost so much schooling. I will let him settle back in for a while now, see how he is coping. Then we will start shaping his future, we must help him overcome this terrible experience and find the positive in it. It will take time, but now we have time again."


Photos

Central African Republic. Jacques and his father Jean-Paul's emotional reunion at Obo airstrip. 

Obo, Central African Republic. Jacques and his father Jean-Paul's emotional reunion at Obo airstrip, after being separated for more than two years following the abduction of Jacques by an armed group.
© ICRC / E. Watson

Central African Republic. Jacques' parents can barely believe their son is back with them, after their ordeal was brought to an end with the help of the ICRC. 

Obo, Central African Republic. Jacques' parents can barely believe their son is back with them, after their ordeal was brought to an end with the help of the ICRC.
© ICRC / E. Watson

Central African Republic. Another boy brought home to his family in Obo is joyfully embraced by his elder brother. 

Obo, Central African Republic. Another boy brought home to his family in Obo is joyfully embraced by his elder brother. He was separated from his loved ones for a year due to armed conflict in the region.
© ICRC / E. Watson