Story by Anna Nelson, ICRC Washington, Spokesperson and Intercross Editor
Photography by Christian Katsuva
Last month, 19 Congolese children, separated from their families by fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and living in a Ugandan refugee camp for the past two years, were successfully reunited with their loved ones, thanks to support from the ICRC and the Uganda Red Cross Society.
The two of the nineteen children are brothers, Niyonzima (14) and Justin (13). Their lives were turned upside down in 2012, when they were doing some routine gardening work and suddenly, they were running for their lives - forced to flee the armed conflict in the DRC. They were separated from each other and wound up as refugees in Uganda.
They were eventually reunited at the Rwamanja Refugee Settlement in western Uganda. (Niyonzima arrived at the refugee camp three months after Justin did.) But that was just the start of a long journey to restore their family links and bring them back home to the DRC. The following photo essay depicts their journey from tragic loss to restoration.
Volunteers from the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo criss-cross the country to the most remote places looking for the families of displaced children. According to Ugandan authorities, some 180,000 children currently live in Uganda, having fled there to escape the violence that has ravaged eastern DRC for the past two decades. The ICRC delegations in Kampala and Goma, working closely with the Uganda Red Cross Society, have been able to trace many of the children back to their families now that the security situation has improved and made their return possible.
Niyonzima (14, left) and Justin (13) are brothers. A day in 2012 that started with routine gardening work in the family plantation ended in a run for their lives, fleeing an armed conflict in the DRC. They ended up, separated by the conflict, as refugees in Uganda. The brothers were eventually reunited at the Rwamanja Refugee Settlement in western Uganda, where they are pictured here.
“I was in the garden,” says Justin. “My mother had sent me there to chase birds away from the garden. But when I came back home, I found that she had run away when the fighting started. I saw a crowd of people moving and I followed them to the border,” he adds. And so began an arduous journey that changed him from a normal school-going child to a refugee. Here, ICRC tracing officer Oliver Muvunyi checks Justin’s name at Rwamanja.
Niyonzima arrives at the refugee camp – three months after Justin. “Whenever I didn’t go to school, I went to the garden to chase away birds,” Niyonzima says. “That day in the garden, when I suddenly heard bullets firing, I started to run, following a large group of people. A friend in the group stayed near me and together we moved to the border. I was very glad to see my brother again and to learn that he was going to school like me,” Niyonzima adds.
Dressed in new clothes for the occasion, Niyonzima and Justin look forward to being reunited with their family. “I missed my mother,” says Justin, “Every time I needed something, she would give it to me.”
Justin (left) waits for his friends as they are received by the ICRC team from Goma, DRC, at the DRC-Uganda border.
Crossing the Bunagana border, the children are visibly excited, happy to have arrived back in the DRC. The idea of finding their family makes them sing and jump for joy. Seven-year-old Moses, striking a victory sign, exclaims, "My home is in Kitshanga and they told me that tomorrow I'll go home! I'm finally going to live with my family again and it makes me very happy.”
During the reunions, the entire village comes out to celebrate the arrival of the returning children. It is an opportunity also for the former playmates to ask a thousand and one questions about life away from home.
A grandmother’s joy is almost palpable on seeing her long-lost grandson, Bahati Erick. “It is two years since I have seen my grandson. I thought I had lost him forever. I thought he was dead,” she says. “When the Red Cross volunteer came to say that he had been found, I did not believe it. I was waiting to see it, to believe. And now that I have seen it, I can die in peace because my grandson is here.”
Justin and Niyonzima are finally back home with their father (right).
“I'm very happy to be back with my family and friends,” says Amani Jean-Marie Amini, the young man in red trousers, posing with his family. “It is when you are away from home that you realize how much it is important to be with family. I am also pleased to be back at school and to see my classmates again,” he adds.
For more from the ICRC Intercross blog, please click here.