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Rwanda: Cyprien helps young Evariste to rejoin family after years of separation

16-07-2007 Feature

Cyprien Ndemeye has been a Rwandan Red Cross volunteer for 15 years. For most of that time he has worked to trace and reunite families thrust apart by the tragic events that have shaped Rwanda and the region since 1994. As time passes, memories fade and any information obtained may be too fragmentary to help to reunite a family. Nevertheless, thanks to Cyprien, a young man aged 16 was able to rejoin his family last year.

© ICRC / Emmanuel kaginbura 
Cyprien Ndemeye trying to obtain information from an unaccompanied child that could help to restore contact with his family. 
© ICRC / Paul Grabhorn / zr-d-00018-20 
The ICRC and the Rwandan Red Cross have helped some 70,000 families to reunite since 1994.    

Cyprien became a Rwandan Red Cross volunteer in June 1992. Two years later he was distributing supplies to thousands of displaced people who had sought refuge in the high mountains around the small town of Byumba south of the capital, Kigali.

Ironically, in April 1994 he himself had to flee and take refuge in Uganda. “I could dream of nothing but of going home and helping conflict victims in my own country,” he said. “Two weeks later I was back, having transited through the Rutare camp for displaced persons. In August 1994 I was finally back at Rwandan Red Cross headquarters in Kigali.”

The buildings had been damaged, looted and abandoned. Cyprien and his colleagues overcame their discouragement and fatigue and set out to re-organize. “We didn’t know what to do or where to begin,” he said. “But little by little we were able to resume our work with the support of our partners in the Red Cross Movement.”

“We had to face the distress of thousands of families dispersed by the conflict. There were worried parents on one side and bewildered and vulnerable children on the other. Anxiety about what happened to one’s loved ones can never be allayed.”

 An abrupt departure  

The ICRC and the Rwandan Red Cross put considerable effort and resources into reuniting relatives separated from one another and sometimes scattered to the far corners of the earth. In 2004 Cyprien became responsible for the distribution of Red Cross messages in the province of Ruhengeri.

From his first days on the job he followed the case of Evariste. “The way in w hich Evariste was separated from the rest of his family, the experiences he had before he was reunited with them, the very thorough work that led to the happy ending ... it’s all very moving to me as I think it over now.”

After spending five years as a refugee in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Evariste returned to Rwanda in 1999, when he was eight years old, with his parents and sister Alice. They lived in Gisenyi in a tent on the banks of the Sebaya river while waiting to go to Nkamira transit camp in the Western Province.

One morning, as was their wont, Evariste and Alice arose early to fetch the firewood that would be needed for cooking. Once this was done, Alice returned to the tent and left her younger brother to play football with friends.

No sooner had she arrived than a wave of panic swept the little camp and people began to bustle about all over the place. They had been told to prepare to be transferred to Nkamira. Only a few moments later, everyone began to leave! When Evariste returned to the camp, it was deserted. There was not the slightest trace of his family or of anyone else he knew.

After being separated from his family, Evariste wandered all over and survived only through begging. Six months later, he ran into a young mason named Justin in the Gisenyi market and they became friends. Rather than leave Evariste to his fate, Justin brought him home to his family. In this new home, Evariste once again found human kindness and the affection he had lost. Still, he could not help but think of his parents and his sister Alice and wonder what had happened to them. But what could he do?

 Off to a bad start  

Six years later Justin heard on the radio that the Rwandan Red Cross was starting tracing activities in the Northern Province, and he decided to tell them abou t Evariste.

According to Cyprien, the case got off to a bad start. “Justin contacted us at the end of 2005. We visited Evariste to obtain as much information as possible, but five years are a long time for a child, especially one who was only eight years old when he was separated from his family.”

It was hard for Evariste to remember places, names or anything else that might have helped to locate his parents. His clearest memory was that of a house situated not far from sugarcane plantations and European neighbours. Despite all his efforts he could not remember more, and what he did manage to recall was not enough to be of any real use for Cyprien and the other volunteers.

When the case was submitted to the ICRC at the beginning of 2006, certain delegates in the field realized that a tracing request was already pending for Evariste. His parents had never stopped trying to find him after their hasty departure from the camp, and they had provided the ICRC with information about him. By this time they were living in Kigali. Even after so many years they were still hoping for a miracle.

The ICRC made arrangements for Evariste’s mother to visit the host family in August 2006. She was relieved to finally be reunited with her child, who had become a young man of 16, and grateful to meet the family that had helped him escape the streets of Gisenyi.

“Just as it took only a few minutes for Evariste to become separated from his family, it took only a few minutes to send a radio message that would return him to his family,” said Cyprien. “It was an honour for my colleagues and me to play a role in his homecoming.”

Restoring family links 
In time of conflict, postal and telephone communications are often disrupted and direct contacts may be impossible. In these circumstances, anyone who wishes to do so may send news of a strictly personal nature to his family and receive such news by means of Red Cross messages until normal means of communication are restored.
  The ICRC works closely with the Rwandan Red Cross to restore family links. The National Society works to a very high standard and has now taken over the collection and delivery of Red Cross messages and a significant part of tracing work.
  Some 70,000 families have been reunited since 1994. Fewer and fewer reunifications occur every year; from several thousand annually in the 1990s there were only 45 in 2006.