For many families it was an ordinary working day in November last year, when the M23 rebels moved into the provincial capital of Goma in the volatile east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo).
“The mother was in the field, the father was in the city, the older sister was carrying the infant on her back: The fighting had all of them running in different directions,” said Albert Mbuyi of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), recalling how people panicked as the fighting erupted.
Mbuyi works to reunite families that have been torn apart by conflict. Four times the size of France, the vast impoverished DR Congo makes such reunions a daunting task, yet the ICRC last year managed to reunite 940 children with their parents.
According to the UN refugee agency, the M23 rebellion and other unrest in the troubled central African country has displaced more than 2.2 million Congolese since the start of last year.
As Goma fell temporarily into rebel hands, about 250 children were displaced, but four months on, the ICRC estimates that nearly half of them have been reunited with their families again.
However, the process of finding missing relatives is not an easy one.
One of the main challenges is in tracing the children’s origins. Some of them may just be toddlers, unable to provide vital information to facilitate the search for their relatives.
With the help of photographs, aid workers post the children’s portraits in places where they might be spotted by someone who recognizes them, such as refugee camps as well as health and food distribution centers.
Any information collected about the child is fed into a database and, step by step, ICRC staff are then able to piece together the possible whereabouts of their relatives.
“On average, it takes three months to trace a family and reunite the child with the family,” Mbuyi said.
Earlier this month, a plane carrying 67 children spent two days traveling the eastern part of DR Congo, reuniting children with anguished families who were sometimes found hundreds of kilometers away from where the child had been picked up by aid workers.
However, ICRC family reunion coordinator Veronika Hinz said the reunions also mean that the families will now have another mouth to feed, so the children are given a food kit that will help out their family for about a month.
The older children, who have sometimes been exploited as soldiers or even sex slaves, are given tools and supplies to be able to start up small businesses to help them integrate into local society again.
“We pay particular attention to this integration, because a child who isn’t [integrated], is easily recruited as a soldier,” said Hinz, adding that they check on how the family is doing three months after a child has returned home.
A UN-backed agreement was signed last month aimed at restoring peace to the eastern DR Congo, but clashes have since pitted two factions of the M23, army mutineers who still control large stretches of territory in the unstable east.
On Thursday, the UN Security Council unanimously approved the creation of a peacekeeping brigade of more than 2,500 troops with orders to “neutralize” and “disarm” the armed rebel groups.