Shortly after sunset in mid-February, my colleague arrived at the ICRC Kigoma office in western Tanzania with four exhausted children. I was to go with the children to the DRC to witness the reunions with their families.
All four had been living in the Kigoma Lugufu refugee camps having fled armed conflict in their country.
The children - Asende Kubwa, Kiiza Rusia, Nondo Lawi and Eliza Lawi were very excited about returning home and admitted they could barely wait another day. But it was getting dark and we had to get some food and a good night's rest before our journey the following evening.
The ICRC and UNHCR often work closely in conflict situations and in the case of refugees, often share information on children separated from their families. Independently, the ICRC has a role and a mandate to re-establish links between members of families who are separated, with priority given to unaccompanied children.
Before our departure, we spent part of the next day at the ICRC office. The children had undergone an amazing transformation, having donned the new outfits bought by the ICRC. They were becoming restless so I took them to the beach for a soda and to help pass the time more quickly.
In between, I listened to their stories about their past and about the camps. Eliza told me about her knitting skills. She used to make sweaters and sell them at the camp for a few shillings.
Surviving the camps
One of the boys told me of escapades with a Congolese trader who offered to help him find his parents, transferring him from one camp to another only to force him into herding his large flock of sheep. He appears resigned, detailing his escape from the man, when no help seemed forthcoming after many months. The children's courage in the face of adversity is simply amazing.
In the evening, we boarded the MV Mwongozo, a boat belonging to the UNHCR along with 500 Congolese nationals returning home. Due to the large numbers, ventilation in the lower deck was poor and space scarce. Most of the men opted to walk around in the upper deck area, enjoying the cool lake breeze and its calm waters. Some women powdered their noses and put on lipstick as they tidied their tightly braided hair. Even with the little they had, they still wanted to look their best for their arrival home.
Eliza kept getting delirious from the malarial fever she had caught in the camp so we sought the ships doctor and afterward, I took her to rest in one of the cabins upstairs while I kept watch over the children below. They drifted between sleep and peering out the windows looking for land, too restless to sit still.
When we arrived at the Congolese port of Baraka the next morning, our ICRC colleagues from the South Kivu office were on hand to receive us. We then drove to the UNHCR Baraka transit centre where the children received their repatriation packages consisting of seeds, a water jerry can, farm tools, medication and food for three months. Anxiety was written all over their faces but exhaustion took over as they waited for their packages. Soon after we set off for Fizi village in South Kivu to witness our first reunification of the day.
Reunited after eight long years
12-year-old Asende Kubwa returned home after eight interminable years of separation from his family. His grandfather Kingombe Nwaca admitted to having witnessed a miracle for the second time in two years.
Seeing the land cruisers with the ICRC logo in front of his home, Nwaca knew he had been handed a lifeline, again. ''This was the second time that the ICRC has helped to find and bring home one of my children,'' he told us excitedly. Only last year the family celebrated when his granddaughter was reunited with the family.
Asende's eldest sister Rose received her brother with hugs and cheers, as the rest of the village burst into songs and jubilation. He was tired from a two-day journey but excited to be home. Although he could barely remember the faces and names that called out to him so fondly, he put on a brave face as his sister teased him about forgetting his family 'so soon'.
He took in his surroundings, perhaps trying to recall the last time he was home. Even though there is not much wealth in the village, at least he had his family, which was all that mattered.
''Asende and one of his elder sisters were separated from the family in 1999 when fighting broke out in our village and everyone was forced to run for their lives,'' his grandfather told me. He learned afterwards that his granddaughter had remarried but there was no news on Asende. In 2006, a Red Cross volunteer brought a message to him from Asende stating he was well and that he wanted to come back home.
''It was then that I knew that my grandson was alive, well, and living with our neighbour in Kigoma. I then asked the ICRC to assist me in getting my grandson back home,'' says Mr Nwaca.
Escape route also the way home
Our first task complete, we left Fizi for Uvira to facilitate 10-year-old Kiiza's reunification. Past the undulating landscaped hills, valleys and lush greenery that is Fizi, Uvira stands at a stark contrast with its picturesque lakeshore and coast-like climate, thanks to the expansive Lake Tanganyika. This lake was an escape route for many people fleeing armed conflict in DRC and Burundi, and it is the same route that they use to go back home.
It is difficult to imagine how people fled their homes in the dead of the night with children in tow during the conflict. When you imagine how fragile children are with all the walking they had to do, it seems impossible. But as Patience Masirika, senior ICRC staff officer in the South Kivu office explains, families walked as many as 400 kilometres in search of safety at the height of the conflict.
Kiiza's home is right next to the road. Her father Mto Ebengo Portace and grandmother smothered her with hugs and kisses, while the rest of the family sang excitedly. She stood bewildered at all the attention, yet managed a smile and was soon chatting with her excited relatives. They spoke to her in the local language, asking a chorus of questions all at the same time.
New tracing service 'evangelist'
Mr Ebengo was elated to see his daughter again. In 2003, his village was attacked and the entire family displaced along with 100,000 other people. In the process, Kiiza got separated from the family and followed a group that went to Burundi. A Congolese neighbour who travelled from Kigoma to Burundi on business spotted her and took her to the Lugufu camp from where they sought the services of the ICRC. In 2006, Mr Ebengo received a message from his daughter stating that she would like to go back home.
''From now on, I am going to be an evangelist, telling people about the ICRC tracing services that can help them find their loved ones,'' the happy father says.
The ICRC officer in Uvira region was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ebengo is a schoolteacher. One of the practices the ICRC officers encourage parents to continue with is educating their children, as they had been attending school in Lugufu camp.
Unfortunately, I could not witness all the reunifications, as I had to return to my duty station. Eliza and Lawi Nondo were left under the care of the ICRC South Kivu officers and later reunited with their family in Kalemie, a journey that took two days.
The war is over, the scars will heal and the children will surely adjust to their new lives. Nonetheless, these stories should serve to remind us of the terrible price of war.