Rwanda's Displaced Children Finding Homes

Up to 100,000 children were separated from families by war; how two boys made it home

IT was hugs, smiles - and tears - as 14-year-old Egide Rwamugabo and his brother Mbonigaba, 8, saw their mother for the first time in seven months, after they fled their village during Rwanda's civil war.

As they were driven by social workers back to their home, they spotted teachers and friends they knew, and jumped out to hug them. At their mud-walled home, about 30 miles east of here, they embraced their mother, brothers, and sisters.

``I thought they were dead,'' said their overjoyed mother.

Of the estimated 100,000 Rwandan children separated from their parents during the four-month ethnic slaughter by Hutus of Tutsis earlier this year, the two boys are among several hundred who so far have been reunited with their family.

But United Nations and private relief officials say most of the children who have a parent or close surviving relative will probably be reunified with them, within a few years at most. Tracing efforts are under way by the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, and such groups as Save the Children (UK).

Meanwhile, about 32,000 separated children are living in temporary care centers in refugee camps and another 15,000 in centers in Rwanda, says Everett Ressler, UNICEF's senior adviser in Rwanda on unaccompanied children. Another 50,000 or so children are thought to be living with distant relatives, neighbors, strangers, or on their own, according to Mr. Ressler and Rwandan social workers.

The key to helping the children is not to establish more orphanages, but trying to get children back with their families, according to Ressler and STC (US) social field coordinator Emanuel Ngomiraronka.

``They need to go to school and be part of a family,'' says Mr. Ngomiraronka. Nonparental relatives can serve as temporary foster parents, he adds.

Reuniting children

A study in a Rwandan refugee camp found that most of the unaccompanied children in care centers still had a family member in the camp. But in many cases the relatives were too poor to feed the child, so they were sent to the center.

When fighting scattered their family, Egide and Mbonigaba walked days to reach Gikongoro, Rwanda, following neighbors, and scrounging for food along the way. From there they were sent by relief workers to a children's center run by the Belgian Red Cross in Kigali, the capital.

Six weeks later, on Nov. 11, two Tutsi social workers employed by STC (UK), Rosine Kamagaju and Odette Uzayisenga, reunited the children with their mother.

But the boys' reunion also brought sadness. Not until the boys had met their mother again were they told their father, a Hutu, was killed trying to save a Tutsi.

From April to July, Hutu militias, backed by the Hutu Army, slaughtered up to 500,000 and possibly 1 million Tutsi, along with moderate Hutus. Tutsi-led rebels won the war in Rwanda in July, replacing the hard-line Hutu government.

Egide cried hard at the news of his father; young Mbonigaba seemed confused and was quiet.

Some of the children who have been separated from their family are ``traumatized,'' Ngomiraronka says. ``Some don't talk.''

Ngomiraronka, a lawyer by training, has started a sports program for more than 2,000 unaccompanied and other children in Kigali. ``When they are playing, they forget bad things.''

``Sports, he adds, helps them to ``have hope to live again.''

The start-up of hundreds of primary schools throughout the country in recent weeks has given children, including those still separated from their parents, something to do during the day.

But love and affection are the key ingredients for the war-separated children, according to social workers. One ad hoc care program here where children appear happy - compared with some where they act desperate for attention - is run here by Mariam Nyirahake.

Providing a sanctuary

In this poor residential neighborhood of Nyamirambo, Ms. Nyirahake and several other women care for some 35 children in a tiny two-room home. Two other small rooms lie off a postage-stamp sized dirt courtyard.

While other children play in the courtyard, four-month-old Ismail Nshimiyimana is in a windowless room, sleeping on a blanket in a warm, dry cardboard box. He was brought here in June after being found lying beside a deep ditch. ``They [Hutu militias] were throwing people into that ditch,'' Nyirahake says. ``The mother must be in that ditch.''

Held in a visitor's arms in the doorway to the courtyard, little Ismail squints in the sunlight, then smiles.

Food and other assistance for the children comes from STC (UK), the Catholic charity Caritas, and the Rwandan Ministry of Rehabilitation, among others.

But, says Nyirahake, ``the food is not enough.'' She needs more because she also helps feed up to 400 other children living with nearby foster families.

* Betty Press contributed to this article.

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