Lost children return to their families a year after conflict erupts
18-01-2012 News Footage Ref. V-F-CR-F-01096-A
Following the second round of presidential elections in late 2010, tension and violence grew into a full-fledged armed conflict in Côte d'Ivoire. In the chaos, hundreds of children lost contact with their families. When fighters entered her village, 17 year old Célestine Toualy grabbed her 7-year-old nephew Mohammed and ran. They and 170,000 fellow Ivorians flooded over the border into neighbouring Liberia. Now, Célestine and Mohammed are going home.
- TV news footage transmitted on Eurovision News from 06:00 GMT Thursday 19 January 2012
- Footage available from the ICRC Video Newsroom
For more information, please contact Didier Revol, ICRC Geneva e-mail
Following the second round of presidential elections in late 2010 where both candidates claimed victory, tension and violence grew into a full-fledged armed conflict in Côte d'Ivoire. In the chaos, hundreds of children lost contact with their families.
When fighters entered her village, 17 year old Célestine Toualy grabbed her 7-year-old nephew Mohammed and ran. They, and 170,000 fellow Ivorians flooded over the border into neighbouring Liberia. "When the fighting broke out, we came here," explains Célestine. "In our village, they stole our beds and destroyed our houses."
Célestine and Mohammed arrived at the refugee camp in Bahn barefoot, exhausted and bewildered. They had no idea what had happened to their family and were too scared to return home.
A child protection agency asked fellow refugee Henriette Blesseu, a mother of five, to take care of Célestine and Mohammed. Henriette explains: "A child is a child. As a woman, it felt like my moral obligation. I also took Céléstine in because her mother had died and I felt sorry for her."
Although strangers at the beginning, the two children formed a strong bond with Henriette during the many months together in the camp. Célestine says: “She takes care of us and looks after us like her own children."
Conflict and disaster leave more than physical wounds: in the turmoil, panic and terror, family members can be separated in minutes, sometimes leading to long years of anguish and uncertainty about the fate of children, spouses or parents.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Liberian Red Cross have registered around 600 children separated from their parents and are working to bring the children back their families in Côte d'Ivoire. But it takes time.
Timo Luege is an ICRC delegate: “One of the biggest challenges to family reunification, particularly with small children, is to get the right information. Sometimes, they don't know the names of their parents. For them, their parents are just “Mum and Dad.”
Using the children’s drawings of their village and asking about what they remember, the Red Cross tries to narrow down the search.
While the children wait to return to their country, they go to school in the refugee camp for free. Child protection agencies also organize recreational programmes and psycho-social counselling to help the children prepare for returning home. While they are anxious to see their families again, reunification can be confusing.
When the Red Cross tells Célestine that they have found her uncle and she can return home, she has mixed feelings. “It's fine to go back to my country, but what about school? My uncle doesn't have enough money for me. If I want to go to school I will have to pay every day."
Before organizing a family reunification, the ICRC needs the agreement of both the relatives and the children. Célestine wants to go but is sad to leave Henriette: "I look on her as my mother, so leaving her makes me sad."
Having worked on other family reunifications, Timo Luege is well aware of how complicated and confusing it can be for the children. "It has to be in the best interests of the child. So we sit with them to make sure they want to go back. We don’t want to pressure anyone. Sometimes, these children are afraid to go back because they have seen things that scared them.”
In Célestine's and Mohammed's village, family and neighbours are looking forward to the children's return and have gathered to welcome them. The Red Cross has also managed to find Albert Toualy, Céléstine’s father and Mohammed’s grandfather. Albert remembers the day he last saw Célestine and Mohammed: “There was shooting everywhere. Everyone started to flee. Many people were looking for their children but the children had scattered and run away. I had no idea where they went."
As Célestine and Mohammed arrive after a six-hour journey, the crowd bursts into song.
Albert says: "It was such a joyful moment for me when I heard my children had been found. The woman who looked after them in the camp is like my earthly God. I want to thank her and thank God."
Albert says of Célestine: “This is my child, she will go to school and so will my grandson. It will be a blessing to me for my children to be educated."
Despite the separation that returning home has brought, Célestine is grateful that she will be able to pursue her great wish; to continue her education. This will not be the last time she sees the ICRC, as they will make follow-up visits to check that she and Mohammed have re-integrated into their community.
Bahn Refugee Camp, Liberia
0:00 GVs of Bahn camp
0:29 Various of Céléstine's hair being braided
0:56 SOUNDBITE Céléstine Toualy (in French)
"When the fighting broke out, we came here. In our village, they stole our beds and destroyed our houses."
“C’est la guerre qui a fait qu'on est venus ici. Dans notre village, ils ont abimé nos maisons. Ils ont volé nos matelas, tout."
01:10 Various Henriette cooking
01:30 SOUNDBITE (French) Henriette Blesseu, (in French)
"A child is a child and as a woman, it feels good to take care of her. I also took her in because her mother died and I felt sorry for her."
”Un enfant, c’est un enfant. Quand tu es une femme, même si ce n’est pas l’enfant d’une amie, c’est bien de le nourrir comme le tien. C’est pourquoi j’ai accepté parce qu’elle n’a plus de mère. Sa maman est morte. Donc j’ai eu pitié d’elle et j’ai accepté."
01:55 Various of Henriette, Céléstine and family eating
02:39 SOUNDBITE Célestine Toualy (in French)
“One must thank the lady because she takes care of us. She does everything for us and looks after me like her own child."
"On doit remercier la dame parce que elle s’occupe bien de nous ici. Elle a fait tout pour nous. Elle me considère comme son propre enfant. Elle s’est bien occupée de nous."
02:55 Various of Céléstine washing up
03:10 ICRC arriving
03:22 Various of Red Cross office in camp
03:44 Céléstine and Timo greeting each other
03:51 SOUNDBITE: Timo Luege, protection delegate, ICRC Liberia (in English):
"One of the biggest challenges when doing family reunification, particularly when you are doing it with small children, is to get the right information to find the parents. Sometimes, they don't know the names of their parents. For them, it is just Mamma and Papa but you can't just look for someone called Mama and Papa in all of the country."
04:09 Camp school and children singing
04:37 SOUNDBITE Célestine Toualy (in French)
“It's fine to go back to my country but I think of going back to school. My uncle doesn't have enough money for me and he can’t give me money every day."
“Rentrer dans mon pays, c’est pas le problème, mais pouvoir aller à l’école, c’est autre chose. Mon oncle là-bas, il n’a pas assez d’argent, il ne peut pas m’en donner tous les jours."
04:53 Timo explaining to Céléstine and Mohammed (in French)
“My colleague will help you with your personal belongings and after we will take the road until we reach the border where we will be greeted by our Côte d’Ivoire Red Cross colleague.”
“Mon collègue va t’aider avec ton bagage et après on prendra la route jusqu’à la frontière. Là-bas on retrouvera notre collègue de la Croix-Rouge de Côte d’Ivoire.”
05:08 SOUNDBITE: Célestine Toualy (in French):
"To leave her hurts me. I look at her and she looks like my mother, so leaving her makes me sad."
“Pour la laisser ici, ce me fait pitié. Quand je la regarde, elle ressemble à Maman. Donc pour la laisser cela me fait pitié."
05:19 Various of Red Cross calling centre
05:39 SOUNDBITE Timo Luege, ICRC Protection delegate, Liberia (in English):
"It has to be in the best interest of the child. So we are sitting with them to make sure they want to go back. We don’t want to pressure anyone. Sometimes, these children, they are afraid to go back because they might have see things which scared them. "
05.50 Various of Célestine packing
06:23 Various of crowd gathering to say good-bye to Célestine
06:40 Crowd helps carry Célestine's things to ICRC Land Cruiser
07:00 Céléstine and Henriette say tearful goodbye
07:20 Interior of ICRC Land Cruiser with Célestine crying
Journey to Cote D'Ivoire
07:36 ICRC Land Cruiser
07:49 Célestine smiling inside Land Cruiser
07:56 Various of crossing Liberia/Cote d'Ivoire border
08:13 ICRC Land Cruisers
Dohouba village, western Cote D'Ivoire
08:23 Various of villagers welcoming Célestine home and singing (Célestine's father, Albert in white hat)
09:09 SOUNDBITE Albert Toualy, Célestine's father (in Yakouba):
"It was such a joyful moment for me when I heard about my children."
09:18 SOUNDBITE Albert Toualy, Célestine's father (in Yakouba):
“This woman (Henriette, caretaker in the refugee camp) is like my earthly God, she took care of my children, gave them food. I would just like to thank her and thank God.”
09:26 SOUNDBITE Albert Toualy, Célestine's father (in Yakouba):
"This is my child (daughter next to him) she will go to school and my son (grandson) will go to school. For me, I didn't go to school, that's why I don’t know how to speak French. However, when my children are educated, it will be a blessing for me."
09:38 Wide of group
09:42 Wide of smoke and village
09:46 Photo of reunited family with Mohammed, Célestine and Albert
Restoring family links in Côte d'Ivoire, 2011
- In Côte d'Ivoire, the ICRC restored contact between nearly 420 unaccompanied children and their families, and received 223 family reunification requests.
- The ICRC reunited 43 children with their parents in Côte d'Ivoire.
- The organization distributed 703 Red Cross messages to civilians in Côte d’Ivoire and collected 582.
- The ICRC received 139 requests from Côte d'Ivoire and 144 from abroad to trace family members in the country, mainly in the west and in Abidjan.
The ICRC and restoring family links
The ICRC’s work to restore family links goes back to 1870, when it obtained lists of French prisoners held by German forces, and could then reassure the families.
Since then, tracing people separated by conflict and disaster has become a major part of the ICRC’s protection work and involves the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in a global network.
The work has an established basis in international humanitarian law, which requires that authorities involved in armed conflict do everything possible to help separated family members to restore contact. The ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency and its partners may offer to help meet these obligations; but very often they take on the practical work themselves, dealing with all sides in strict neutrality.
In 2010, the ICRC:
- handled more than 305,000 Red Cross messages enabling family members to exchange news – 51,000 of these messages were to or from detainees;
- facilitated 21,000 phone calls between family members;
- registered over 2,000 unaccompanied/separated children, including 627 former child soldiers;
- reunited more than 1,600 children with their families;
- published the names of more than 64,000 people via www.familylinks.icrc.org who were either trying to contact relatives and friends or being sought by relatives,
Over 832,000 people contacted ICRC offices around the world for advice or services related to protection and family links.
For further information, please contact:
Steven Anderson, ICRC Geneva, +41 79 536 92 50, e-mail
Noora Kero, ICRC Liberia, +231 777 556 533, e-mail
Layal Horanieh, ICRC Côte d'Ivoire, +225 09 39 94 04, e-mail