Sudan/Democratic Republic of the Congo: seven abducted children fly home
Judy and several other children were abducted by an armed group that roamed the jungle between the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan. For a whole year, she had to carry goods and food through difficult terrain, under dangerous conditions, unpaid and uncared for.
Today, Judy is one of seven children eagerly waiting to rejoin their families in the DRC, with apprehension written all over their faces. They sit patiently at Yambio airstrip in Southern Sudan, straining to hear the distant sound of the ICRC plane arriving from Dungu in the DRC, just thirty minutes away.
Young lives, tough stories
James (14) is the most confident of the group. "My sister and I were abducted somewhere in the DRC and forced to march with the armed men. They gave us stuff to carry but we didn't know where we were going. It was like that most days, we just wandered around the bush. Later my sister died in a shootout between the group and the army."
Unlike James, Anne (12) was abducted right in her home. She recalls the episode in a voice so quiet as to be almost inaudible. "Armed men burst into our house early one morning. The rest of my family escaped. They took me into the bush. They made me do things I don't want to talk about, things I want to forget."
Judy was just nine years old when she was abducted and the details are hazy. Now ten, she does remember how she was rescued from somewhere along the border between the DRC and Sudan. "We were just moving off after I had fetched water, when soldiers started shooting at the men who had abducted me. A bullet hit me in the head and I fell down. My abductors thought I was dead and abandoned me. I was scared, but I crawled away from the fighting until the soldiers saw me and took me to their base where I was treated."
Two other children injured in the crossfire that day were subsequently rescued by soldiers, who handed them over to a humanitarian agency that referred them to the ICRC.
James and Anne also escaped during fighting between the army and the armed group, but at different times and in different places. Anne, who said she was beaten every time she asked her captors for her mother, was forced to follow the group during every attack. This ultimately proved a blessing in disguise, as it was during one of these attacks that she managed to escape.
The long route home
The children came into contact with the ICRC on the border between the DRC and Southern Sudan in 2008. They then moved to a refugee camp where they were looked after by the UNHCR while the ICRC and the Sudanese Red Crescent Society followed up on their cases. It took ICRC staff two years to establish contact with their families and complete the paperwork required to get the children back to their families in the DRC.
Looking at the people waiting to say farewell to her and other children, Judy becomes pensive. "There are still many children in the bush with this armed group and they're not happy. The fighters keep moving from place to place and when an attack comes, the children are killed if they can't run fast enough."
The ICRC aircraft finally appears, and smiles replace the apprehension on the children's faces. Nuala Ryan, the Deputy Head of the ICRC Mission in Southern Sudan, smiles too. "These children suffered a lot away from their families. By registering them and reuniting them with their parents, the ICRC not only returns them to the warmth and care of their families but also ensures that the world hears their stories."