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Democratic Republic of the Congo: the fates of separated families intertwine

28-11-2008 Feature

Families are big in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; some comprise as many as 10 children. Children often become separated from their families as terrified crowds flee the fighting. Dozens of families have become split up since fighting resumed. Two stories show how friendship and solidarity are helping people cope.

 

Esta and Jashire 
   
   
 
 
  • Some 250,000 people have fled their homes since fighting resumed at the end of August 2008.
  • The ICRC and the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have registered around 100 children as separated from their families in the province of North Kivu. Steps were immediately taken to find their relatives, and four children have now been reunited with their families.
  • The Red Cross has opened two new offices in the camps for displaced persons at Kibati, north-east of Goma, to facilitate the search for missing children.
  • Every day, the names of missing children are broadcast on radio stations in North Kivu
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 Kirotshe is a little village some 40 km west of Goma. It lies amid hills covered in luxuriant vegetation, overlooking a valley even greener than the hills. In the centre of the village, the ICRC and the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are distributing food to people affected by the recent clashes. Fatigue, hunger and sadness have left their mark on the faces of the hundreds of men, women and children of all ages who have gathered.    
  ©ICRC/O. Miltcheva    
 
Esta (11, left) and Jashire (10) with Kasongo, who has taken them into his own family. 
    Esta makes her way carefully through the crowd. She holds another girl firmly by the hand. “This is my sister Jashire,” she explains affectionately.

Esta and Jashire are not really sisters. They grew up in neighbouring villages, and only met because of the tragedy that has struck the region in recent months.

“Esta arrived at the end of September. Jashire came along two weeks later. They’ve been inseparable ever since,” says Kasongo. He has nine children of his own, and has welcomed the two girls into his family.

“They got lost while they were running away, and became separated from their families. I’m responsible for a certain area round here, and it was really my duty to look after them until we found their families.”

There are no camps for displaced persons ar ound Kirotshe. Most displaced people have found refuge with local residents, thanks to a remarkable display of solidarity. Despite being poor themselves, people in this area have taken in dozens of unaccompanied children.

Shyly, Esta tells us that when armed men approached Mitogoto, the village where she lived, she fled with her mother, her elder sister and their neighbours. As they passed through a forest they heard shots and started running. When she stopped, out of breath, her family were nowhere to be seen.

Jashire comes from the village of Kiluku. Her mother worked far away in the town of Goma, and her father is dead, so Jashire was brought up by her grandmother. When Jashire fled their village her grandmother decided to stay, feeling she was too old to move. That was the last the little girl heard of her.

“I’m feeling better now, but I really want to find my mother,” concluded Jashire. “Things are better here, because I’ve got somewhere to sleep and food to eat, but most of all because I’ve got Esta to keep me company.”

 
Généreuse and Marceline 
 

 The countryside on the outskirts of Goma is grey and dusty. A lunar landscape. Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, sending streams of lava right into the town centre. Since then, life has resumed around the scars left by the disaster.  

   
  ©ICRC/O. Miltcheva    
 
Marceline: "I've hardly stopped crying since I lost my little Maombi" 
    Two women in their thirties sit on a piece of lava surrounded by a dozen noisy children. For an outside observer, it is difficult to tell which child belongs to which mother; the two women watch all of the youngsters with equal affection.

Prior to October, Généreuse and Marceline had little contact, even though they both came from Kibumba. They were too busy working to feed their large families.

In October, when the sound of boots arrived in their village, the two women fled. Their biggest fear was rape, which has become an everyday occurrence here in the Kivus. Each mother became separated from a little girl on the journey.

“When I heard shooting in the village, I attached each of my six children to my skirt so I wouldn’t lose them. We walked fast, for a long time. When I stopped, my little Ando wasn’t with the others,” explains Généreuse. Her husband went back to the village a few days later to look for the child. Since then, Généreuse has had no news, either of her little girl or of her husband.

Marceline fled the same day, with four of her five children. Her small daughter Maombi got lost somewhere near where they lived. Marceline went back to the village a week later to look for her. “I wandered around among the empty houses. I was terrified that the men with guns would harm me. Nothing happened to me, but I didn’t find my little girl,” concludes a disconsolate Marceline.

“Généreuse looked after my children while I was away. Now we share everything; childcare, food … and grief. Généreuse has become my sister in suffering.”