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Rwanda/Democratic Republic of the Congo: draw me a family!

12-04-2010 Feature

Having already lost their father, Azaria and Léonie lost track of their mother as the result of the recurrent violence in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Thanks to the efforts of the ICRC and the National Societies, a family cousin has just taken them in; she lives in Rwanda, their country of origin. Pedram Yazdi accompanied them on their journey.

©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
Léonie and Azaria with other children who are also due to be reunited with their families in Rwanda. Leaving Goma (eastern DRC) bound for the Rwandan border. 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
Arriving at the home of their mother’s cousin. The two children meet Philomène for the first time.  
  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
With the Rwandan Red Cross representative (left) at Philomène’s home. The members of the family living in the vicinity will soon come to welcome the twins. 
  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
In Kabaya, where Azaria and Léonie will now be living and attending school. 

“When our village was attacked we fled to the forest, and we haven’t seen our mother since,” Azaria explains as he sits beside his twin sister Léonie in the back of an ICRC vehicle at the border post between the DRC and Rwanda. Across the border is a country that is foreign to them, although they are actually of Rwandan origin. Thanks to the twins’ childhood memories and accounts by the people accompanying them, the ICRC and the Rwandan Red Cross managed to locate one of their mother’s cousins in Kabaya in Rwanda.

“We reunite hundreds of children with their parents or other family members in the DRC and neighbouring countries every year with the help of the National Red Cross Societies concerned and their volunteers,” Svetlana Yudina explains. Svetlana is in charge of the ICRC programme for restoring family links in the DRC. “War and violence result in the forced displacement of population groups, and, in the turmoil, children can sometimes get separated from their parents. It is very difficult for family members to find each other again, since they have no means of communication.” 

For Léonie and Azaria, the long process of family reunion is almost over. The customs officers at the border post discuss matters with the Red Cross representatives and sign the cross-border passes, whereupon the vehicle crosses into Rwandan territory. The twins anxiously survey the roads of what was formerly the country of their parents, who had been forced to flee to the DRC in 1994 – only to get caught up in another conflict. That was before Léonie and Azaria were born. They have no recollection their father, who died shortly afterwards, and their mother never talked to them about her life in Rwanda.

 A warm embrace  

After a one-hour drive, the vehicle turns off the main road and arrives in the small town of Kabaya. It’s market day and quite difficult to make any headway along the narrow mud-track streets. The ICRC representative eventually finds a parking place in the middle of the hustle and bustle. A member of the Rwandan Red Cross is waiting for them, beaming from ear to ear. He opens the door of the vehicle, introduces himself and invites Azaria and Léonie to get out. Another Red Cross worker grabs their baggage and the group sets off along a lane, leaving the town centre.

Azaria and Léonie finally arrive at the home of their mother’s cousin, Philomène, who embraces them warmly. This is the first time they have ever met. The Red Cross approached Philomène a few months ago to see if she would be willing to take the children in. Today she opens her home and her heart to them. “These children have my cousin’s blood, my family’s blood, in their veins,” says Philomène. She already has two children of her own, so it will be easier for the twins to integrate.

She then telephones cousins, aunts and other family members living in the vicinity so that they can come and welcome the children. There will be much celebration this evening. Léonie and Azaria begin to relax, and Philomène can’t take her eyes off them.

See also our film: The lost children of Goma