Mozambicans Fight For Family Unity

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

BUT for the lump in his throat when he talks about the past, Reuben Maviye seems no different from any 14-year-old. And watching him toss a ball around outside his older sister's home on the outskirts of Mozambique's capital of Maputo, it is hard to believe that this youngster witnessed his parents being killed by rebels, then lived as their captive in the bush for five years, and just escaped being forced to join the guerrillas himself.

Reuben's life has taken a dramatic turn. A year ago, he and his two brothers were freed from the brutal Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo) by government forces. Through a family-tracing program launched by the social welfare department and nongovernmental relief organizations, the three have discovered an older sister, Carolina, who has given them a home.

``I never believed that I would see any of my family again,'' says Reuben, his face breaking into a big, boyish grin.

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Since it started in late 1988, the program has only succeeded in returning 2,000 of an estimated 200,000 dislocated children to their families. Yet Bridget Walker, a relief worker with Save the Children, says that ``has exceeded all our wildest expectations.''

Over 100,000 people have been killed in Renamo's war against the Marxist government since 1986. A United States State Department report described the war as ``one of the most brutal holocausts against ordinary human beings since World War II.'' Renamo was sponsored first by South Africa, and now is supported by right-wing groups in Portugal, South Africa, and the US.

One-third of the country's 14 million people have been forced to relocate or flee to neighboring states. Half the population is near starvation, helped only by massive internationally funded relief efforts. Children have seen their world turned upside down.

Reuben was only nine years old when Renamo attacked his village in Mozambique's southern Gaza Province and murdered his parents. The boy, two brothers, and a sister were taken hostage. Reuben's sister escaped after three years with the rebels, but the boys remained captive for a further two years.

``We had to walk a long way from the camp to find food,'' says Reuben. ``There was never enough.''

Often, Reuben contemplated escape, but he did not want to leave without his brothers. One day last year when they were out searching for food, they met government soldiers. They took the children and passed them to the women's wing of the ruling party in the little town of Chegutu, where they also found their sister.

Officials from the government's social welfare department, Save the Children, and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) try to place the children with their nearest relatives rather than in institutions.

When Reuben told relief officials that he believed his older sister was living with her husband in Maputo, pictures of the children were taken and their particulars recorded. These were included in posters placed in the specific area of Maputo Reuben mentioned, and were highlighted at a community meeting.

Reuben's older sister Carolina and her husband saw the posters. ``When we looked at the photos,'' she recalls, ``we realized that they were our brother and sister.'' The couple rushed to the local authorities, who passed the information to the social welfare department. In less than a month, the children came home.

In some cases, notes Ms. Walker, the process may be longer or more complicated. Sometimes, for example, either children or parents are still in Renamo-controlled areas.

Despite these obstacles - and logistical problems because road travel is virtually impossible - the relocation program has spread rapidly. The process is now being computerized, and offices will soon be opened in all of Mozambique's provinces.

Families have been found in 70 percent of the cases documented. And in 30 percent of the successful reunifications, either a mother or father has been found. Reuben's story vindicates the relocation program's premise: that Mozambique can't wait until the war is over to start rehabilitating its children.

Although he is now in his teens, Reuben has pluckily gone back into the first grade and is starting to read again. And though he suffers some from a war wound, he has gotten over his nightmares. Walker says it is a ``quite remarkable'' turnaround.

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