Reuniting Rwanda's Families Child by Child
|IRC reunites this 15 year old with his mother in Butare, Rwanda, after five-and-a-half years of separation.|
Children, especially those orphaned or separated from their families, are usually the most vulnerable refugees. They are the first to suffer disease, abuse, and exploitation and the least able to protect themselves. Such is the case among Rwandan refugee children.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the turbulent exodus that followed scattered tens of thousands of children around central Africa. A concerted international effort immediately after the crisis reunited many with their families. But in subsequent years, only the International Rescue Committee and a few other organizations continued to trace and reunite Rwandan families.
Repatriating Rwandan children who sought refuge in the Republic of Congo has been particularly challenging. These children were exposed to unthinkable violence in Rwanda, only to endure starvation, abuse and repeated armed attacks as they fled 5,000 miles on foot across former Zaire to Congo-Brazzaville.
Some three hundred children are still living in refugee camps there, along with some of the same people who carried out the genocide in Rwanda. These genocidaires, believing child refugees lure humanitarian aid, dissuade the children from leaving by telling them their parents are dead and that they too will be killed should they decide to go home. As a result, these children have continued to associate Rwanda with terror and carnage and have refused to repatriate.
But the tide has recently turned, in large part due to the tireless work of Wayne Bleier, the International Rescue Committee's reunification coordinator in Congo-Brazzaville. Since his arrival in early 1999, the former family therapist has developed an innovative program that is helping convince the children that it is safe to return home.
|For a long time, this 17-year old refused to speak about the horrors he experienced or provide clues as to the whereabouts of relatives. One day, in a drawing exercise, he sketched a house and part of an address - which turned out to be his grandmother's. IRC was able to locate her and bring the two together.|
Mr. Bleier emphasizes that patience is critical when dealing with such traumatized children. "Reunification takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to these kids. I knew that all the tracing in the world wasn't going to get them home," he says. "First we had to develop credibility and trust, and eventually work to rekindle positive memories of their life in Rwanda. The only way we could do this was to give these kids compelling information that their families are alive and that it's safe to return - information more compelling than the bad stories they were being told."
In Rwanda, the IRC set up a team to trace families. Once family and relatives are found, they are interviewed, photographed, videotaped and asked to write letters to the children. In Congo-Brazzaville, Mr. Bleier and his team gradually introduce this material to the children in a transit center established away from the camps and the negative influences of the genocidaires.
"Little by little, we started breaking the propaganda. More and more came forward, wanting to leave," says Mr. Bleier. So far, 55 children previously considered "unreunifiable" have either rejoined or are set to rejoin their families - the first children to repatriate from the camps in two years. Now the success of the project has led the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to request the IRC expand its program to assist elderly and adult refugees in their decisions to go home.