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DR Congo: 70 children, one aircraft and many happy families

12-11-2011 Feature

Patrick had been separated from his parents for more than six years. He, his younger brothers and some 70 other children were reunited with their loved ones in September this year. Espérance Tshibuabua, of the ICRC’s Kinshasa delegation, met him on the plane specially chartered by the ICRC for a major operation to reunite families across the country.

1 September 2011 was a big day for Patrick:  he was about to be reunited with his mother, from whom he had been separated more than six years previously. His two younger brothers were also on the plane: Trésor, aged 14, and seven-year-old Maurice. Despite his height and age, Patrick comes across as shy. ”When fighting broke out in Goma we fled”, he explains. “Our father had gone to work and our mother was at the market.”

After running away the three boys followed groups of the population that were moving from place to place in a region caught in the grip of violence.  Eventually, after several months of wandering from village to village, they reached Katanga province.  “Maman took care of us”, says Patrick. The woman he calls Maman was in fact an inhabitant of Goma who fled the war in the Kivu region together with Patrick and his two brothers.

To reunite the 70 children with their families the ICRC plane has to make some four trips a day, taking off from Lubumbashi for destinations including Kamina, Mbuji Mayi, Kindu, Moba and Manono. Patrick and his brothers are not alone on board: several other children will be making the journey with them. Their faces show neither joy nor sadness. If anything, they seem almost helpless. I imagine that they must be wondering what it will look like, the place where the plane will land, their house, their village… We take off and the youngest of the children, who are only two years old, start dozing off – while the older ones struggle with airsickness.

Alphonsine is in the seat right in front of Patrick. She boarded the aircraft in Kindu, the capital of Maniema province. She was 13 when she was separated from her parents. Population movements triggered by the fighting carried her far away from her family, until she ended up alone in another village. In 2010 her mother contacted the ICRC in the hope of finding her child. On 1 September Alphonsine lands in Goma and his met by her mother, tears of joy in her eyes.
Mireille, who is 17, started her journey in Angola and ended up in Mwinyampulo, in Kasai Occidental province, where she was given shelter in a convent. She stayed there for almost a year before returning to Luiza. In Angola she had lost all contact with her parents. To survive she took to selling water packaged in plastic bags.

Mireille was eventually located by a volunteer of theLuiza branch of the  Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the beginning of a long voyage: by bicycle from Mwinyampulo to Luiza, by motorbike from Luiza to Kananga, capital of Kasai Occidental province, and by plane from Kananga to Lubumbashi via Mbuji-Mayi. She was delighted to be reunited with her brother and admitted that she’d been unhappy while separated from her loved ones, whom by now she barely knew.

Organized by the ICRC and the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this particular operation to reunite children with their families began at the end of August 2011 and lasted more than a week. During that period, the ICRC plane made four trips a day to carry children from and to the Equateur, Province Orientale and North Kivu provinces.


Photos

Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Children arrive at Loano/Lubumbashi International Airport, where they are met by the ICRC Lubumbashi tracing officer, Michel Kalunga. 

Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Children arrive at Loano/Lubumbashi International Airport, where they are met by the ICRC Lubumbashi tracing officer, Michel Kalunga.
© ICRC / E. Tshibuabua

Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Children leave Bukavu on an ICRC plane to be reunited with their families in the province of Katanga. 

Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Children leave Bukavu on an ICRC plane to be reunited with their families in the province of Katanga.
© ICRC / E. Tshibuabua

Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Five children are reunited with their father. 

Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Five children are reunited with their father.
© ICRC / E. Tshibuabua

Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A 17-year-old girl found at the border between Angloa and the DRC is welcomed by her sister-in-law. 

Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A 17-year-old girl found at the border between Angloa and the DRC is welcomed by her sister-in-law.
© ICRC / E. Tshibuabua