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.

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. When the civil war came there in September 1998, their father had been away working in the capital, Kinshasa, for two years. Their mother happened to travel to sell goods in Lubumbashi, on the border with Zambia, on what became the last train to leave Kindu before the Rwandan Army and its rebel allies took the town. The front line had moved, and now it sat firmly between the Luhatas and their children.

"We thought she was dead, because the news was that the train had been looted and some people killed," says Fatuma, a tall, thin girl.

With no relatives in Kindu, Fatuma, then age 12, became the head of a household. "I wasn't angry with my parents, but I was angry with the war that separated us," she says.

The eight children survived for a short while on some money their mother had left with them. "When the money was finished, we began to sell all the things we had in the house," Fatuma recalls. "After a year, when the landlord found we couldn't pay rent. He told us to leave the house."

They slept for a night in a church called Life in Christ, where the pastor told his congregation about their plight and a woman took them in. Not wealthy herself, she needed contributions from the churchgoers to support the children, while Fatuma and two sisters gathered cassava leaves and bananas to sell.

Finally, in June, a message sent from their father via the Red Cross reached the children in Kindu. And on Tuesday, they were among 26 children who boarded a DC-3 aircraft in Goma to meet their parents in Kinshasa. The youngest Luhata, 4-year-old Valerie, is still so small from undernourishment that she had to be carried onto the plane.

Four hours later, the plane touched down at Kinshasa airport. An immigration officer does a quick roll-call, and the children board a bus to the embassy district. There, at the Red Cross compound, their waiting parents sit in plastic chairs, wearing their Sunday best.

Then come the reunions. Albert Luhata beams as brightly as his yellow jacket, surrounded by his eight children. Mrs. Awazi doesn't let go of her youngest, Ibrahim, for a good half-hour.

"The first time I saw a parent and child reunified was two years ago," Nussle says. "And I'm still moved."

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