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Côte d'Ivoire: finest Christmas present

08-01-2008 Feature

With tears in her eyes, Pauline clasps her daughter close as a crowd gathers to watch. It has been five long years, and no-one in the village believed the child could still be alive. "It's the most wonderful Christmas present I've ever had! God bless the Red Cross!"


Tia's return to her village caused an explosion of joy. 

In early 2003, war came to Bohébly. When the village was attacked, Pauline was out working in the fields, and her two-year-old Tia was with Pauline's sister-in-law Delphine.

A group of villagers including Delphine and Tia were abducted and taken across the border to Liberia. An unfortunate chain of events separated the little girl from her aunt. Delphine eventually made her way back to the village alone.

" Everyone thought Tia was dead, " says the village chief. " How could a little girl survive all alone out in the bush? "

" I knew she was still alive, " replies her mother. " I used to see her in my dreams. No one believed me, but I was sure I'd find her some day. "

Tia had been taken in by Dorothy, a Liberian woman from the Yacuba people, who raised her as her own child. Dorothy informed the ICRC that she was caring for the child, but at the age of two the little girl could hardly speak and the ICRC's tracing file on her was sketchy. Since no-one knew her name was Tia, so she was registered under another name.

For its part, Tia's family filed a tracing request with the ICRC across the border in Côte d'Ivoire. The two files were not compared by staff, who were kept busy by the many other cases of relatives separated from their loved ones by the fighting.

With the situation improving, the ICRC sought to wind up the pending cases and, in the process, the two files were matched. Following several interviews with Pauline and Delphine, an ICRC worker showed Tia's mother photographs of the little girl mixed together with photos of other girls her age. Despite the intervening years, Pauline immediately recognized her daughter. Knowledge of a scar on Tia's back clinched the identification.

Just before Christmas, the ICRC delegations in Abidjan and Monrovia arranged for Pauline to travel to Dorothy's village. She and her daughter recognized each other and a few days later the two returned together to Bohébly. There a jubilant crowd in festive dress greeted the ICRC vehicle as it pulled up. Tia emerged and was embraced in turn by everyone in the village. The ICRC delegates joined in the festivities, daubing their faces with the same ceremonial clay as the villagers and enjoying a drink of " bandji " , the local palm wine.

The linchpin in the process of finding Tia and bringing her together with her mother was Célestin, the ICRC tracing official in the local area. " When we succeed in an operation like this the result is a joyous occasion for us too. It's wonderful, it sends shivers down your spine! "