Crush of Rwandan refugees displaces children in its wake Parents lose their children in unguarded moments as returnees press forward

November 20, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GISENYI, Rwanda -- In this land of horrifying experiences, thousands of children have been murdered. Others have died of starvation.

Many are just lost in the mass of bodies trudging home along the road that passes through here.

That road is clogged with 500,000 refugees who have been streaming back to Rwanda since Friday.

With virtually everyone who can walk using one hand to help balance a heavy load on top of the head, only one hand is free to hold onto what is usually several children. In just a few seconds they can be lost in the crowd.

Lost in seconds

Gakoba, her only name, lost her older sons, ages 14 and 15. She said that she was watching her three younger children who were walking ahead when the older boys, lagging behind with heavier loads, sat down to rest. She had not seen them since.

"I turned around to look for them, but they were gone," she said.

Yesterday, she was in the crush of parents gathered outside the Nkamira camp, about 15 miles, or a day's walk, down the road from the Gisenyi border crossing. This camp is a center for locating lost children.

The parents were let through the gate 10 at a time. An aid worker led them through the tents that currently hold more than 1,500 children, some so young they can't give their names.

With hundreds of thousands of people involved, it would seem like finding a needle in a haystack, but more than 300 children have been found by their parents at this center since it opened Friday.

The children are scattered over the several acres of the camp, all wearing the bracelet name bands that identify them as unaccompanied minors, the technical term for lost children.

Some beg for food, others scavenge kernels of corn dropped from the big bags used to feed the children.

Eleven-year-old Inshimana was separated from his parents even before leaving the Mugunga refugee camp in Zaire.

He went to fetch some water and in the confusion of the mass departure Friday never caught up with his family. He followed the crowd across the border, was taken by the Red Cross to the area for lost children Saturday. He has been waiting for his parents to find him since then.

Reunions sought

The idea behind the plan of the various aid groups is to get the children reunited with their parents as quickly as possible. Some have been taken into a central area that would eventually get information about them to their home communities.

If they are not reunited in the center, they will be taken to their home areas.

In the camp here, parent after parent tells of losing children in the crush of people.

Thaddeus Mwiti, 13, was climbing the hill that leads out of Gisenyi with his 12-year-old sister Marie Chantal Usanasi on Monday when they lost track of their older sister.

"We thought she was behind us so we sat down to wait," he said. "But she must have been ahead of us."

That sister, Francine Murekatete, 15, had just located the two children while their mother waited by a camp fire in the crowd outside. She stood with an her arms wrapped around their necks.

"I am very happy," she said. "Now we can all go on together.

Their reunions occur without much excitement or emotion.

Disruption and upheaval have become familiar parts of their lives. Two years ago they left their homes in Rwanda and fled to Zaire. They stayed in refugee camps where thousands died. Then a civil war came to Zaire and they fled home to Rwanda a few days ago.

When Gakoba headed back toward the gate of the camp, she said she had found the older of her two boys, Immanual.

She said that she was happy, but her face remained expressionless, perhaps as she contemplated the days of walking that laid ahead.

"I am worried about the food that he was carrying because we were all supposed to eat it," she said. Her son's load also included the family's cooking pots.

A smile did come to her face as she heard her son's explanation for what happened to his luggage. "I tried to cook, but I couldn't do it, so I got mad and threw it all away."

Resigned to fate

Asia Nyiraneza, 30, had just searched the camp in vain looking for her 12-year-old son, Ngarambe, who was lost in the crush at the Rwandan border Saturday morning.

She seemed resigned to the awful fate that prevails here.

"If God wills it, I will find the child, but I don't know if he is alive or has already died," she said. "I will take my other child now and go back to my home near Kagali. If I do not find my child, then that will be that."

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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