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19-01-2012 | Africa

Liberia / Cote d'Ivoire: Lost children return to their families


Following the second round of presidential elections in late 2010 where both candidates claimed victory, tension and violence grew into a full-fledged armed conflict in Cote d'Ivoire. In the chaos, hundreds of children lost contact with their families.

When fighters entered her village, 17 year old Celestine Toualy grabbed her 7 year old nephew Mohammed and ran. They, and 170,000 fellow Ivorians, flooded over the border into neighbouring Liberia. "When the fighting broke out, we came here," explains Celestine. "In our village, they stole our beds and destroyed our houses."

Celestine and Mohammed arrived at the refugee camp in Bahn barefoot, exhausted and bewildered. They had no idea what had happened to their family and were too scared to return home.

A child protection agency asked another refugee, Henriette Blesseu, a mother of five, to take care of Celestine and Mohammed. Henriette explains: "A child is a child and as a woman, it felt like my moral obligation. I also took her in because her mother died and I felt sorry for her."

Although strangers at the beginning, the two children formed a strong bond with Henriette during the many months spent together in the camp. Celestine says: "She takes care of us and looks after us like her own children."

Conflict and disasters leave more than physical wounds: in the turmoil, panic and terror, family members can be separated in minutes, sometimes leading to long years of anguish and uncertainty about the fate of children, spouses or parents.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) together with the Liberian Red Cross has registered around 600 children without parents and is working to bring the children back to Cote d'Ivoire to their families. But it takes time.

Timo Luege, an ICRC delegate states: "One of the biggest challenges when doing family reunification, particularly with small children, is to get the right information. Sometimes, they don't know the names of their parents. For them, it is just Mama and Papa but you can't just look for someone called Mama and Papa."

Using the children's drawings of their village and by asking about what they remember, the Red Cross tries to narrow down the search.

While the children wait to return to their country, they go to school in the refugee camp for free. Child protection agencies also organise recreational programmes and psycho-social counselling to help the children prepare for returning home. While anxious to see their families again, reunification can be confusing. When the Red Cross tell Célestine that they have found her uncle and she can return home, she feels mixed.

Celestine explains: "It's fine to go back to my country but I think of school. My uncle doesn't have enough money for me. If I want to enrol in school I need to pay every day."

Before organising a family reunification, the ICRC needs the agreement of both the relatives and the children. Celestine wants to go but is sad to leave Henriette: "I look at her like my mother so to leave her makes me sad."

Having worked on other family reunifications, Timo Luege is well aware of how complicated and confusing it can be for the children. "It has to be in the best interest of the child. So we sit with them to make sure they want to go back. We don't want to pressure anyone. Sometimes, these children are afraid to go back because they might have seen things which scared them."

In Celestine's and Mohammed's village, family and neighbours are looking forward to the children's return and have gathered to welcome them. The Red Cross has also managed to find Albert Toualy, their father and grandfather respectively. Albert remembers the day he last saw Celestine and Mohammed: "There were gun shoots everywhere. Everyone started to flee. Many people were looking for their children but the children had scattered and ran away. I had no idea where they went."

As Celestine and Mohammed arrive after a six hour journey, the crowd bursts into song.
Albert says: "It was such a joyful moment for me when I heard my children had been found. The woman who looked after them in the camp is like my earthly God. I would like to tell her thank you and tell God thank you."

Albert says of Celestine: "This is my child, she will go to school and my grandson too. For my children to be educated, this will be a blessing for me."

For Celestine, while returning home has entailed losses, she is grateful she will be able to pursue her great wish to continue her education. This will not be the last time she sees the ICRC. They will do follow up visits to check that Mohammed and Célestine have re-integrated into their community.

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