A childhood lost
By Abu Bakr Gamanga and Virginia de la Guardia
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
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
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
ICRC tracing team interviewing Sierra Leonean
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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