Togo + 1 more

Benin-Togo: Children fled Togo alone in fear of violence

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COME, 10 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - When Nacisse's father - her only living parent - was taken away in the night by security forces after April's presidential election, she fled Togo with her older sister. But the pair became separated on the trek to Benin where she now lives as a refugee.

"It is hard what I have lived through," sighed the 17-year old, tears welling in her eyes.

When Togo descended into post-election violence at the end of April, thousands of men, women and children fled in fright. Nacisse lived in Be, a poor district of the capital Lome that became the scene of explosive street battles when Faure Gnassingbe's presidential victory was announced.

Some children fled alone. Others became separated from loved ones on the tough and sometimes dangerous journey to the camps in Benin, which on Friday housed 21,641 Togolese according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

And the refugees are still running.

"Most of the new arrivals are young men, many say they are fleeing from fear of abductions and targeting by security forces," said the statement.

On average, 100 refugees pass daily through the southern coastal Hilakondji border crossing, said UNHCR.

The government on the other hand says the youths are heading to the camps for economic reasons - either free food handouts or a rare chance to seek asylum in the United States or Europe.

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner Louise Arbour on Friday said it was launching an investigation into what has driven 36,809 refugees into Benin and Ghana. A commission will arrive in Lome on Monday 13 June to carry out two weeks of investigations by human rights officers and forensic experts.

The UN children's agency UNICEF in Benin had 204 single children still on their books as of 7 June. Boys are catered for in Come camp, the 21 girls are housed by nuns in the capital Cotonou.

The youngest of the 204 unaccompanied children is 8, the oldest in the group 18.

"Everyone fled our neighbourhood when soldiers went from house to house," explained 15-year Ekue, who lives in one of 17 especially reserved boy's tents separated from the rest of the camp by a woven fence.

"Somewhere in the rush to leave, my friends and I lost sight of our parents. On the way to the lagoon [that marks the Togo/ Benin border], we met a group of soldiers who fired on us from all directions with real bullets," he said.

"One of our friends, Kuami, was hit in the head and fell. The rest of us threw ourselves in the water."

Many of the children that fled at the beginning of the violence that was sparked with the proclamation of results on the 26 April, swam the frontier between Togo and Benin.

Some kids described how soldiers fired bullets into the murky water as they made their feverish escape.

However, others, like Nacisse, arrived as late as mid-May, begging her bus fare off a concerned stranger she met en route.

"My sister and I waited for news of our father [after he was taken away by soldiers one night], but when there wasn't any news, it was then we decided to flee," she explained.

Though the children are too young to vote, many of the youngsters admit they took part in the street violence that erupted to protest the alleged rigging of Gnassingbe's election as head of state.

"I'm not strong enough to throw stones, but I did fetch water for the boys to wash their faces after the tear gas was launched," Nacisse remembers.

Another 17-year old lad split after soldiers beat him for refusing to clear car tyres that were still hot and burning from street demonstrations.

Emilie Padonou, a psychologist at Come, has dealt with many children traumatised after seeing parents or friends shot by soldiers. Some, when they first arrived, refused to talk.

The first priority has been to get them back into school. They have some comradeship with the other children in the camp and the authorities have even installed an adventure playground for them to play.

The UN children's agency UNICEF and French human rights group, "Terre des Hommes", are working to reunite the children with loved ones through 15 special centres - 4 in Togo and 11 in Benin.

"The children are always very glad to find their families - even if it is not their father or mother but some other member of the family that we manage to locate," said Miranda Armstrong of Terre des Hommes. "It's very moving."

But Nacisse won't be moving back home even if she finds her sister.

"I do not want to return to Togo - that country disgusts me."

[ENDS]

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