Uganda: Congolese refugees use ICRC service to call home

04-03-2013 Interview

Last year, as the ICRC and the Uganda Red Cross stepped up their tracing activities, one in five newly arrived Congolese refugees fleeing violence in North Kivu used a free ICRC mobile phone service. Sylvie Graenicher, the coordinator of ICRC tracing services in Uganda, explains.

What is the ICRC doing for Congolese refugees fleeing to Uganda?

The ICRC is carrying out tracing activities in partnership with the Uganda Red Cross Society. Last year, one in five newly arrived Congolese refugees used a free mobile phone service provided at transit centres in Nyakabande and Matanda and at the various refugee settlements to contact relatives and let them know they had arrived safely in Uganda.

What is the size of the operation?

In 2012, more than 18,000 phone calls were made by Congolese refugees on arrival in Uganda. Traditional services, such as the exchange of Red Cross messages, are still offered to all refugees. Around 4,000 messages were collected and 2,000 distributed last year.

Do you also provide refugees with other support?

We register unaccompanied children. We facilitate contact between them and their families, and if the families are in areas where it is safe for the children to return, we see to it that they are reunited with their families. In 2012, we helped 11 refugee children rejoin their families.

What else does the ICRC do in northern Uganda?

In northern Uganda, which for many years was a war-torn area where the ICRC conducted a major assistance operation for displaced civilians, we are continuing our efforts to reunite former abductees with their families. In 2012, four young women, all of whom had been in their early teens when they were abducted, and who had been missing for about 10 years, were led back to their families. Together with the children they gave birth to while still in captivity, and two other children without parents, they were reunited with their families in Uganda in cross-border operations from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The ICRC is also currently phasing in a programme that relies on support groups for missing people, a programme aimed at boosting the adaptability of communities by providing them with appropriate psychological and social assistance.

You worked 18 months in Uganda. What will you remember from that experience?

I was especially happy to be present for the reunification, on 17 January 2013, of four small children with their families. Atim,* aged 7, whom we had been looking for since mid-2011, and the three half-sisters Jennifer,* aged 2, Akwero,* aged 6, and Akumu,* aged 7. In the case of Atim, we really looked for her for 18 months and had almost given up, as we never expected that we could still find her. Our ultimate success in locating her and reuniting her with her loved ones shows that persistence does pay.


*Not their real names


Sylvie Graenicher 

Sylvie Graenicher

DR Congo. A young girl sits on her mother's lap. The pair were separated during fighting in the Garamba forest, DR Congo, two years ago. 

DR Congo. A young girl sits on her mother's lap. The pair were separated during fighting in the Garamba forest, DR Congo, two years ago.