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02-03-2005 Feature

Reunions of persons separated by war are emotionally charged moments. Balla Bamba, an ICRC delegation employee in N'zérékoré, witnessed a reunion that might never have been had it not been for … a cow named Kabassan.

Many years ago, Fatoumata lived with her family in a small village in Upper Guinea. When she was four years old, one of her aunts came to bring her to Côte d'Ivoire, where they lived until September 2002, at which time violence broke out in the country. Fatoumata’s aunt died in the riots, shot by a stray bullet. And so, at age 15, Fatoumata found herself alone and left to her own devices. She fled and ended up in Forest Guinea, in a refugee camp where many children live, often separated from their families.

In the camp, the ICRC registers unaccompanied children and collects all the information needed for their identification. This is the start of an arduous process, which involves collecting, checking and double-checking masses of information in order to locate the relatives being sought, checking information obtained from the children for a possible match with tracing requests filed by parents, restoring contact between the scattered family members, and, lastly, making sure that the right persons have been traced before proceeding to reunification as such.

  At the end of 2004, the ICRC delegation in Guinea was monitoring the cases of 716 children and 23 adults in the country, all left vulnerable after being separated from their families owing to the conflict. In 2004, the ICRC restored contact between 462 vulnerable children or adults it had been monitoring in Guinea and relatives who lived mainly in neighbouring countries. Of this number, 385 were reunited with their families: 275 in Liberia, 94 in Sierra Leone, 14 in Guinea and two in Côte d'Ivoire.


This process is even more difficult when information needs to be collected from children who were separated from their family at a very young age, and many years ago. They have only vague recollections of the place where they first lived, or even of family members’ faces.

Fatoumata was registered by the ICRC in January 2003. A Red Cross message was then written up and sent to the village where she was born; she remembered the name having heard her aunt mention it on various occasions. When her family received news of Fatoumata, her older brother was sent to go meet her and bring her back home.

When the young man arrived in N'zérékoré, he contacted ICRC staff in charge of tracing activities, and they brought him to the camp where he finally saw his little sister again. But Fatoumata did not recognize her brother. So many years had passed since they last saw each other! In spite of the young man’s several attempts at getting his sister to recognize him, Fatoumata was still not sure.


“What can I do?” the young man wondered, bordering on despair. “How can I convince Fatoumata that I’m really her brother?” An idea suddenly sprang to his mind: “Fatoumata,” he said, “When you were little, we used t o go to the fields every day during ploughing time. Do you remember?” “Yes,” she replied, still hesitant, “but if you’re really my brother, what was the name of my friend the cow I often played with?”

“Kabassan!” the young man replied. On hearing the name, a sobbing Fatoumata threw herself into her brother’s arms, while the other refugees looked on, moved. After a moment of joy and tears passed, the family reunification was made official according to ICRC procedures, and Fatoumata’s case was closed, ending on a positive note. And all this, thanks to her childhood friend, Kabassan the cow.