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War and family links: do you know this child?

18-01-2001

Of all recent humanitarian disasters, the events in Rwanda surrounding the genocide of an estimated 800,000 people, other grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, the sheer scale and speed of the mass flight of over two million people mainly to neighbouring countries, surpass ordinary experience or the worst imagining. They created a crisis of such proportions that every Rwandan is said to have lost touch with at least one member of his or her immediate family.

   

Kibungo. Father searching for a picture of his lost child.ICRC/B. Neeleman/ref: rw-n-00157-20 
 

Here, more than in other wars, the toll on the children was particularly high. A UNICEF study posited that five out of six children who were in Rwanda during the slaughter had, at the very least, witnessed bloodshed. Among the displaced multitude, it was the unaccompanied children. Unaccompanied minors (UAMs or unaccompanied children) are defined as those children who are separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible to do so. Separated children are defined as those children who are separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary caregiver, but not necessarily from other relatives; it thus may also include those children who are accompanied by other adult family members. Separated children are also part of the ICRC's programme which reunites unaccompanied children with their relatives. (UACs) who were particularly vulnerable and at greatest risk, cut off from their major source of emotional and physical security, and likely to lack most basic means of survival (protection, food, water, shelter and medical care) and to have their rights violated.
 
The programmes started by the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations in 1994 to protect, assist and reunite unaccompanied Rwandan children with their families are undoubtedly the most important of their kind ever undertaken. The ICRC's mandate in relation to its protection activities for children affected by armed conflict is based on the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the additional Protocols I and II of 1977. In these texts, which offer general protection of the civilian population at large, over thirty articles can be found which refer specifically to children.
 

The current figures speak for themselves, reflecting the size and success of the exemplary work carried out.

    

 To date, of the 74,739 Rwandan unaccompanied children who have been registered and followed as a result of the conflict, a total of 67,119 have been reunited with their families.  

Furthermore, of the 30,487 UACs repatriated from abroad since the mass returns of 1996-7, a total of 27,768 or 91.17% have rejoined their families. (A large number of UACs who were registered immediately following the huge exodus from Rwanda in 1994 were not followed by humanitarian organizations). Among these are 26,190 UACs who were registered in refugee camps before the repatriations in 1996, and who the ICRC later considered as temporarily " frozen " cases as their exact locations were unknown. (Total = 26,190 temporarily " frozen " , of which 18,601 were never relocated: 13,510 in the DRC, 1,770 in Burundi and 3,321 in Tanzania. However 7,589 have since been followed up and 4,012 have been reunited with a family member.
 
 What happened to those who were never relocated? :  

a) The children were not unaccompanied in the camps and therefore returned home with their parents;

b) Many children in the camps were in contact with their families via Red Cross message (RCM), therefore they might have returned home by themselves;

c) Following the mass repatriations the children are either still somewhere in DRC or elsewhere in Africa or have unfortunately died;

d) There was a duplication of files despite controls in place;

e) Organizations lost track: the UAC was registered once but NGOs lost contact with the children, and failed to monitor or update their movements;

Widely known throughout Rwanda after six years of tracing work, the ICRC serves as a reference for the community and those still looking for a lost child, and is currently the major humanitarian player still active in this field in Rwanda. Remarkably, the ICRC reunited an average of 94 Rwandan children with their families each month in 1999 and 64 children per month in 2000. As the total active caseload diminishes, the ICRC's focus has now shifted towards trying to reunite the remaining unaccompanied children both inside Rwanda and abroad.
 

Yet, as Rwanda and its people emerge disorientated from the legacy of recent history, the country continues to face immense challenges, particularly in its reintegration and reconciliation efforts. Tens of thousands of Rwandans still live outside its borders, including many unaccompanied children, and despite internal security improvements, peace and stability rely on the continued successful reintegration of present and future returnees. They are also determined by the overall geopolitical evolution of the Great Lakes region. The complex interrelated regional p roblems, fuelled by instability and conflict, continue to generate population displacements across the region and new UACs of different nationalities, thus necessitating the continued involvement of the ICRC.Today, some six years on from the start of the Rwandan crisis, the ICRC - as one of the few organizations still actively involved in activities for children in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region - is continuing the incredibly painstaking and patient work of reuniting unaccompanied children (UACs) located both inside Rwanda and abroad who have been separated from their families by the conflict. At the same time, the complex interrelated regional problems continue to generate population displacements across the region and new UACs of different nationalities, thus necessitating the continued involvement of the ICRC.