I remember one day when I was eight and I lost my mother in a supermarket. I could feel the panic rising as I scanned the shoppers’ faces. The minutes wore on and my walk turned into a run as I searched the aisles for the familiar figure of my mother.
I still remember the fear – what should I do if I can’t find her? That was in shop in the UK. Going through those emotions with gunfire ringing in your ears, neighbours lying dead on the ground and having to flee for your life is quite unimaginable.
I’ve been in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for a few weeks – witnessing the heartbreak and tragedy invading families’ lives yet again in this beautiful but war-torn region.
The children I’ve spoken to have been as young as 14 – they should be going to school, coming home to their families, and playing with their friends in the fields around their village.
Instead they’re terrified, alone and often living in displacement camps where living conditions are basic and every day is a fight for survival. Having lost their parents in the chaos, these children often have no idea where their family now is, or whether they are even alive.
Save the Children has been working with lost and traumatised children since the influx of families over the border into the DRC from the Rwandan genocide in 1994. We are here yet again, sadly, responding to the urgent needs of children who have been traumatised by conflict, displacement and separation.
Reuniting these children with their families is a laborious and not always successful process. With nearly six million people living in North Kivu province alone and half a million displaced from their homes since April this year, the expression ‘needle in a haystack’ comes to mind.
These children don’t have phones, there is no ‘home phone’ to ring and houses don’t have postal addresses. The reunification process here relies largely on word of mouth – using the incredible systems of community networks and oral traditions.
The first step is identification. Sadly separation often becomes ‘normalised’ in communities here. In the UK a child who has lost their parents would instantly be recognised and referred to the relevant authority.
Here, local authorities may not be notified and the local community are the ‘first-responders’, taking children in or providing them with food. To allow for quicker identification Save the Children is supporting ‘listening posts’ in the camps.
These are small temporary structures that are staffed by a local partner aid agency that we have trained. They keep their ears and eyes open for cases and provide a point where separated children can seek help and be registered.
The team will the note down as much information that the child can provide – names, ages, dates and locations – registering the child as officially separated and referring them to the agency that carries out the tracing process.
This often involves posting photos and information of the separated children around the settlements and speaking to local leaders who can spread the message through the community networks.
Whilst this meticulous process is underway, the child will be placed with a local family and someone from one of our partner organisations will visit the child to make sure they are safe and respond to any health or protection needs they may have.
Yesterday I met Beatrice. She is 14 years old and was at home the day the rebels entered her village. Her mother was at the market and her dad was farming the fields. She faced no other option but to flee her village with her five year old sister.
With no money or extra clothes, she told me how she saw her neighbours lying dead on the ground and escaped into the forest in search of safety. Six months on and she lives with a host family in Goma, the main city in North Kivu. She no longer goes to school and has no friends. With tears in her eyes, she explained that all she wants is to find her mum.
Cycle of separation
Georgette from one of Save the Children’s partner organisations is visiting her every week – looking to support her reintegration into local schools and making sure she is safe.
Unbelievably, Georgette was separated herself at eight years old as a result of fighting in her village. She now dedicates her life to help children who faced the same terror and loneliness that she once faced.
I can only hope one day the children of the Kivus no longer have to live through the gunfire, displacement and separation from their families that is shaping the lives of those in this region yet again. Until that day, we will be here.