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11-12-1998 Feature

Story of Niyonshuti, 14 years old, December 1998

Four years have passed since Niyonshuti, now 14, was separated from his mother in the torrent of people fleeing the fighting in his native Rwanda. This is his story.

Swept along by a human tidal wave, Niyonshuti suddenly found himself lost and abandoned. On the road he met a stranger who took pity on him.

Niyonshuti describes his experience as an " unaccompanied minor " , a world into which he was thrust so abruptly. " He was a good man. He took me into his home and took care of me. So I decided not to go on towards Congo. " Niyonshuti had no idea what had become of his family; he believed his parents, grandmother and eight brothers and sisters had all perished.

Six months later, his benefactor suddenly died. Niyonshuti was now alone in the house with the wife of the man who had so hospitably received him. " I wanted to go to school, but she wouldn't let me. One day, I ran off with some friends to go to school but she caught me and brought me back to do the chores " . Then he relates how, in order to buy clothes, he borrowed money from the neighbours, bought some avocados and sold them at the market, reimbursed the neighbours and used the profit to buy second-hand clothes, which he proudly displays.

Niyonshuti had lost all hope of finding his family. In Ruhengeri, far from his native Bugesera, he knew nothing of the International Committee of the Red Cross or what it could do for children like him.

One day last October, following lengthy research, an ICRC employee appeared and told Niyonshuti that his aunt Catherine had filled out a tracing form on him. Niyonshuti accompanied him to the ICRC office in Ruhengeri, from where he was taken the next day to Kigali, and the following day to Mbogo, outside Kigali, to find his aunt.

It was a difficult journey. Even the seasoned ICRC driver wondered whether they could make it as they wound through the Nyabuco mountains along a wet, slippery, treacherous road. Villagers advised them to turn back – a new storm was looming and threatened to strand them until the next day. Accustomed to such challenges, however, the team pressed on and reached Mbogo three hours later.

The mayor of Mbogo sent for Niyonshuti's aunt, who arrived breathless a few minutes later. She explained that she had submitted a tracing request over three years previously, just in case.

ICRC staff carried out the necessary procedures to verify the identity of Niyonshuti's aunt. To everyone's amazement, she announced that Niyonshuti's mother was still alive, and lived in Nyamata. The child's face brightened instantly. He didn't want to stay here – he wanted to see his mother!

The address provided by Niyonshuti's aunt was fairly vague – not much to go on, but worth a try. It was growing late, so the team decided to return to Kigali. The next day they were on their way at the crack of dawn, Niyonshuti with a wide grin spread across his face. Grasping his little bundle of belongings, he climbed into the all-terrain vehicle.

In Nyamata it turned out that the address was incorrect. But an ICRC employee had an idea and went to the market to ask people there if anyone knew Niyonshuti or his family. All eyes were on him as he stood there in silence, feeling uneasy. He could not remember the name of the hill where he used to live , or the name of the road leading to his house. Finally a women announced that she recognized him. She was a neighbour of his parents and gave their address.

With fresh hope the ICRC team followed her. " This is the first time in four years that I've been happy, " said Niyonshuti, smiling radiantly. He was restless, anxious to get there. Finally, he recognized the path leading to the school, commenting that the trees along the way had grown.

When the ICRC vehicle pulled up at his modest home, he jumped out and people came running. Niyonshuti saw his father first and ran into his outstretched arms. Everyone found it hard to believe that Niyonshuti had returned. One of his sisters hurled herself into his arms as tears of joy and relief flowed. Then came his grandmother, his baby sister and the rest of the family.

People talked of what had transpired during his absence, with Niyonshuti feeling as if he had been born anew. But where was his mother? Working in the fields, people said, planting beans. The delegates went off with Niyonshuti and his sister to find her.

Two women in the fields watched the car approach, wondering what this white vehicle with the red crosses was doing there. Niyonshuti recognized one of the women as his mother. " That's her! " he exclaimed, jumping down and starting to run. She recognized him at the same instant, dropped her work and rushed across the field. Before long everyone else's eyes were wet with tears too. " I never stopped praying to God that he would bring my son back alive, " said Niyonshuti's mother, choking back the sobs. " Thank you ... thank you! "

There are still some 6,400 unaccompanied children like Niyonshuti in Rwanda who hope one day to have the joy of being reunited with their parents, or at least with a member of their family.

 Ref. LG 1998-099-ENG