Liberia/Côte d'Ivoire: Separated by conflict, reunited by the Red Cross
All too often, armed conflict separates families, leaving children alone and far away from home. The case of Lucien (not his real name) is not unusual. During and after a conflict, the ICRC reunites families, restoring hope to those who have suffered the trauma of war.
My name is Lucien. I'm 17. I come from Côte d'Ivoire and I've just returned home after two years in Liberia, a long way from my mum.
Conflict and escape
"Lucien, you've got to go. Things are getting too dangerous. I don't have enough money for all of us to go, but you might be able to get across the border into Liberia." I can hear my mother's voice as if it was yesterday. In fact, it was back in June 2011.
The fighting and general chaos had reached our part of Côte d'Ivoire in December 2010. Anyway, I had to leave my family and my home. After I'd walked a long way, hunger and thirst forced me to give up and go back. Mum sold some stuff to raise a bit of cash so I could try again, but by car this time. Thing was, I was 15 and she thought I was more in danger than the others if I stayed.
So for the second time I left my mother, my two younger brothers and my two younger sisters. I joined up with a minister from a local church and his wife, and together we went to Zwedru in Liberia.
Once we got there, another minister and his family took us in. I started going to school and learning English. And I joined the choir and played the drum for church services. I was really starting to feel at home. But then I had to leave Zwedru and my protector from Côte d'Ivoire, and move into a refugee camp. I was sad to have to leave my new Liberian family.
The refugee camp
There was no school for us older children in the refugee camp. I lived with a family there, and helped them with the domestic chores. The rest of the time I hung out with my new friends from the camp. Lots of people were living in houses made of plastic sheeting. Everybody was homesick. Being uprooted makes people sad.
Some people had tiny little gardens. A farmer without land can even get attached to a tomato plant. I was like a seed, looking for fertile soil where I could put down roots. Lots of the time, I was thinking about my family and trying to work out how to get home.
It was in the camp that I found out that the Red Cross reunites families. It was on 21 November 2012, a Wednesday, when I went to the Red Cross office and told them the whole story. I gave them a description of my mother and told them where she lived. I even wrote her a letter. A few weeks later, I had a wonderful surprise: a reply to my letter, delivered by people from the Red Cross. I was going to be able to go home!
The way home
In January 2013, I finally left my temporary home and headed back to rejoin my family. I packed my few clothes quickly. The day I left, I ran to the Red Cross vehicle that came to collect me. I had waited for so long. My friends, my host family and the neighbours all came to say goodbye. There was a kind of sadness in their smiles, their looks and their hugs. They would have liked to have been going home as well. This was the third time I'd had to leave memories behind.
Things went very quickly. The ICRC office in Zwedru, a night in a hostel with other young people who were going home, the "ladies in white" who work for the organization, other people from the Red Cross, a dusty road and finally the bridge that separated me from Côte d'Ivoire. After I crossed the bridge, there were more smiling faces, and a few minutes later I was sitting in another Red Cross vehicle. Now I felt more confident. Everyone around me was speaking French, I was in Côte d'Ivoire and I was going home!
Restoring family links
That day, Lucien and the other young people all rejoined their families in Côte d'Ivoire. Being back with the family is just the start of the process which, hopefully, will enable these young people to put the traumas of the past behind them.
When circumstances allow, teams from the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and from the ICRC do all they can to reunite families split up by conflict. And when unaccompanied minors are involved, they make an extra effort.
Family reunification operations are complex. They involve tracing the family, exchanging messages, setting up the logistics, working with other humanitarian organizations and sorting out the admin on both sides of the border. The ICRC and the Liberian and Côte d'Ivoire Red Cross Societies have dozens of people helping children and vulnerable adults find their families, often after months or even years of separation, waiting and anxiety.
We started these cross-border family reunification operations in 2011, following the post-electoral crisis in Côte d'Ivoire and the influx of refugees into Liberia. So far, we've reunited 190 people with their families, most of them unaccompanied minors.