Tears and Hugs as Parents and Kids Reunite in Congo ; Torn Apart by Years of Civil War, Families Find Each Other This Week with Red Cross Help

Article excerpt

The moment that Aminatha Awazi sees her children for the first time in four years, she can't help herself. She lets out a sound that combines a yelp of joy and a moan of pain, leaps from her chair and fiercely embraces all three kids at once, tears streaming down her face.

"It's been so long," she repeats, as all around her in the Red Cross compound, six other families hold their own reunions.

The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has not only severed this huge country in two - with rebel groups controlling its eastern half - it has torn asunder thousands of families like these. No one knows exactly how many, since gathering statistics here is difficult in the best of times.

"Every day we have new cases that are opened. We get letters every day from families, and every day unaccompanied children come to our compound looking for help," says Sophie Nussle, head of protection in Congo for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the branch dealing with armed conflict issues.

Over the past two years, ICRC has helped nearly 600 children in Congo reunite with their parents, including 40 this week. More than 200 others are on its database, waiting to be reunited.

"We know there are children in places where we can't do operations with children for safety reasons. And we know there are lots of children separated from their parents who won't know about [the Red Cross family tracing service]," says Ms. Nussle.

To trace family members, the agency gets as much information as possible about the last known whereabouts of the parents or the children. Then its volunteers on either side of the front line go there and ask questions. While ICRC even used the Internet to reunite people in the Balkans, Nussle says the process in Congo is especially difficult because of the abysmal infrastructure and of the country's massive size.

Children typically are separated from their parents in one of two ways:

Sometimes family members flee in different directions when fighting breaks out suddenly, then they can't find one another. Or sometimes the families happen to be apart already - for instance, children might visit relatives during vacations or parents might be working away from home - then the conflict stops them from getting back together.

The latter was the case for the eight Luhata children from Kindu in eastern Congo. …