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A childhood lost

By Abu Bakr Gamanga and Virginia de la Guardia

Children have borne the brunt of the 13 years of conflict in the Mano River Union countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Often separated from their parents fleeing the violence, some live in camps with no one to care for them. Many others are abducted and recruited as child soldiers or, in the case of girls, forced to become child brides.

Boreah Camp: Safeea (black t-shirt) and Aiah (white shirt & black trousers) pose with caretaker family before departure.

The number of unaccompanied children fleeing from Côte d'Ivoire to Liberia and Guinea, and from Liberia to Sierra Leone and Guinea increased with the escalation of fighting in Côte d'Ivoire and renewed tensions in Liberia. A similar situation in Sierra Leone during the war years (1991-2001) has resulted in a large influx of Sierra Leoneans to Guinea and Liberia. This atmosphere of insecurity compounds the problem of restoring family links in the subregion and makes reunification of unaccompanied children difficult or even impossible as many of their places of origin are far too dangerous and inaccessible.

The ICRC initially established a tracing office in Zimmi in south-eastern Sierra Leone, to facilitate the exchange of family news for Liberian refugees who fled their country after an outbreak of fighting in 1990. Working closely with National Red Cross Societies in this beleaguered subregion, the facility has today spread over all the Mano River Union states and Côte d'Ivoire. Since February 2001 a small Beechcraft airplane is operating in the subregion reuniting children with their families.

Victims of abuse

Aiah Alieu, Safeea and Agnes, aged 10, 14 and 17, are unaccompanied Sierra Leonean children who sought refuge in Guinea in the early 1990s. Agnes, now 17, was 6 years old when she was separated first from her father following an attack on Yengema, eastern Sierra Leone in 1992. In the midst of the hopeless confusion she fled together with her mother and younger brother to Bunumbu, which came under attack even before the displaced family could settle. "I left the town when the rebels attacked us leaving my mother and brother behind. An unknown woman found me on the way and brought me to Kailahun town. From Kailahun we came to Kolahun. We were there for a year until soldiers came and took me away to Voinjama. In Voinjama I was held prisoner with other women. I saw them kill some women."

Agnes tried to escape after one year but she was found by the rebels in Kolahun where "they melted rubber under my feet so that I would not run away again". She was forced to stay with them for four years. It was while nursing her wounds that she had the luck to escape to a refugee camp in the Gueckedou prefecture of Guinea. Agnes's story epitomizes the unspeakable misery that children, especially girls, suffer in the ongoing conflicts of West Africa. Most of them stay with foster families in the refugee camps, who often consider them as nothing more than a means to get increased assistance and a source of free family labour. Consequently adopted families often do not want Sierra Leonean children to be reunited with the family since it means the loss of the commodity. Agnes's parents were killed in the war and her younger brother, Safeea Pessima, died in Bunumbu "for lack of drugs and medication". Agnes, a victim of sexual aggression, became pregnant in the Gueckedou refugee camp. She is now raising her two-year-old daughter alone.

Disturbances in Parrot's Beak in Guinea in 2001 forced the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to evacuate Sierra Leonean refugees to Albadaria in Guinea. Around 200 Sierra Leonean unaccompanied children are still in refugee camps in neighbouring Guinea. The camps of Boreah, Kountaya, Telikoro and Sembakounya host over 45,000 refugees, the majority of whom are Sierra Leoneans. Agnes, her baby, Safeea M'bayo and Aiah Alieu were met by Red Cross volunteers at the Boreah refugee camp on the eve of their departure for final reunion with their families.

 

A long road

Responsible for family tracing and cross-border reunification of minors in the camps, the ICRC facilitates the exchange of family news among inmates. But the process of reunifying children is a difficult and protracted one. "It starts with the identification of minors by the wardens in the camps. After pre-registration we conduct interviews after which a decision is taken about whether to register a child for reunification," explains Zarvan Owsia, the ICRC delegate in charge of camps in Albadaria.


ICRC tracing team interviewing Sierra Leonean
unaccompanied minors.

The difficult task of tracing parents or relatives begins with the exchange of a Red Cross message between the child and family after the child's name and age, parents' names, previous and present addresses have been recorded. A photograph of each child is attached to the message for easy identification. If tracing a parent fails Idrisa Kanu, head of tracing activities in Freetown, explains: "We make enquiries in the child's village of origin where we approach community and religious leaders who may be able to provide useful information." Other means can be used: displaying posters with photos of the children in refugee camps and public places like markets, schools or hospitals; broadcasting names on local radio and encouraging parents looking for their children to contact the nearest ICRC or Red Cross office. Hundreds of posters are now displayed in Liberia.

 

In Sierra Leone a vast array of child protection and district tracing agencies, funded by UNICEF and coordinated by the protection secretariat of the ministry of social welfare, gender and children's affairs, follow all reunified children to assist in their reintegration. The district tracing agencies are usually informed of each family reunification and the ICRC offers each child a blanket, mat, kitchen set, soap, school materials and assistance for uniforms.

Agnes, Safeea and little Aiah finally reached their destination after a couple of days in child transit centres in Guinea and Sierra Leone. The joy of being reunited with their families after several years of separation welled up tears in the eyes of family members and onlookers in Sukudu. Safeea had been presumed dead for almost four years and it was the receipt of his Red Cross message that rekindled his family's hope.

For Agnes, the emotions were extremely deep. She left home a child but has returned as a mother, having endured years of extreme abuse. She is trying to focus on the future and is eager to get an education.

Abu Bakr Gamanga and Virginia de la Guardiah
Abu Bakr Gamanga and Virginia de la Guardia are ICRC communication delegates in Sierra Leone.



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