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Democratic Republic of the Congo: children travel thousands of kilometres back to loved ones

22-01-2010 Interview

In a country as large as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), locating and reuniting family members separated by the conflict can be a complicated matter, especially during the rainy season when some areas are inaccessible. Svetlana Yudina, who runs the ICRC's programme to restore family links in the DRC, reports on a special flight to the capital Kinshasa with 42 children on board.


  Svetlana Yudina    
     The ICRC has arranged a special flight with 42 children on board. Who are these children, and why are they returning to Kinshasa by plane?  

This flight is carrying children from various parts of the country back to their homes in Katanga province. It will then pick up other children in Katanga to return them to their families in Mbuji Mayi, Kisangani, Isiro, Bukavu, Goma and Kinshasa. Some of these kids have been separated from their loved ones for more than 10 years.

The DRC is as large as Western Europe. By flying the children, we're able to avoid terrible logistical difficulties. That's because some roads are impassable during the rainy season, with entire regions cut off from the rest of the country.

The plane works like a school bus. It makes several stops to drop children off at reunification centres and to pick other children up on their way to rejoin their families in different parts of the country. With a 19-seat airplane, we can reunite 40-50 children with their families in one round trip.

 Are these special flights new?  

Not at all. The ICRC has been organizing these flights in the DRC for more than 12 years. In 2009, for example, we had four: three to Katanga and one to Equateur province. The Equateur operation, last August, was a little different from the others. The ICRC doesn't have an established presence there, which meant that we had to organize the operation remotely. The flight brought eight girls and seven boys, aged two to 16, back to their families in Gbadolite, Bumba and Gemena. Some of these children were very young when they became separated. These family reunifications would not be possible without the help and motivation of hundreds of volunteers from the DRC Red Cross, who work tirelessly, sometimes for many weeks, to find the children's families.

 How many children have these flights reunited with their families?  

A total of 136 in 2009 and another 42 this time. These flights alone accounted for a significant proportion – nearly 20% – of the family reunifications that the ICRC facilitated in the DRC in 2009. It was a particularly busy year: we returned more than 800 children to their families, up from 358 children in 2008. That's an average of 16 children per week – 16 smiles and 16 relieved families. It's fantastically heartwarming, but we mustn’t lose sight of the other 538 children for whom the tracing process goes on.

 Do you remember any one flight in particular?  

Every flight is an emotional affair, full of individual joys – but also stress. The flight from Béni, in North Kivu, to Manono, in Katanga, sticks out in my mind. We were accompanying a boy who was to be reunited with his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in years. But during the flight we found out that the volunteer from the Congolese Red Cross who was supposed to meet him hadn't come to the airport! We don’t have an office in Manono, and the plane was to drop the child off and continue on its way. The tension rose as we drew closer. I could just imagine the boy’s disappointment and the potential disruption to the flight's itinerary. Finally I managed to reach his mother directly, and she was the one who met him when he got off the plane.

 What is the main challenge faced by ICRC family-reunification staff?  

Some of the places where the children are reunited with their parents are as much as a five-day drive from the closest ICRC office. When you have your staff spread all over a big country like this, special planning and coordination are needed. During the Equateur operation, for example, two of my colleagues practical ly never put down their telephones for two weeks. Will the plane be able to land on this runway you wouldn't believe? Are we sure that volunteers will be at the airport? But after each successful operation, we share the joy of all these families, and that's our reward.