See also: Uganda: Congolese refugees use ICRC service to call home - interview
For seven-year-old Atim,* her arrival at the Vurra border post in north-west Uganda on the morning of 17 January 2013 marked the beginning of the end of a significant phase in her life. Looking pensive yet full of expectation, she was apparently aware that the journey that had started two years previously in a Congolese forest was about to end in Pogola village in the Amuru region of northern Uganda. You could feel how she longed to finally be reunited with her mother after years of forced separation.
Adong,* the child’s mother, had been snatched from her family in Pogola at the age of 12 by an armed group that was then wreaking havoc in the region, ambushing villages, taking children to be used as "child soldiers" and kidnapping women to be used as "wives."
Adong travelled with the militia throughout Uganda and into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she gave birth to Atim and two other children fathered by a former commander in the armed group.
Separation amid fighting
Atim and her mother were separated in August 2011 when the Uganda People’s Defence Forces and the Congolese army attacked elements of the armed group at its camp in Garamba forest, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As they fled, their paths diverged. Adong recalls hearing Atim’s cries behind her. As she turned to make sure Atim was following, she realized the girl had disappeared.
"I thought at that moment I would never see my child again. I feared the worst," she said. Adong and her remaining children were later rescued by the Congolese army and taken to Dungu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were then flown back to Uganda, where they were reunited with Adong's family.
A villager sees a resemblance
Atim, five years old at the time, was found and taken to the children’s centre in Dungu, where the ICRC started its efforts to trace her relatives. ICRC staff travelled to northern Uganda with Atim's photograph, which they showed to returnees. When one of the villagers saw a resemblance to Adong, the ICRC went to see the woman they thought might be Atim's mother.
It was Oliver, an ICRC field officer, who met Adong that day. "Adong took one look at the picture and then held it tightly against her heart for about five minutes," he said. "She remained absolutely silent. Once in a while, she would look at the picture again in complete disbelief." A picture of Adong was then sent to the child. When Atim saw it, she became extremely excited. She ran to neighbours to proudly show them the picture. Atim’s long journey home had begun.
Branches and an egg for Atim
The atmosphere in the village was charged with excitement, especially when it became known that the car carrying Atim was just a few kilometres away. A large crowd had gathered to see the long-awaited daughter. For many villagers, Atim was just a story, since they had never set eyes upon her.
As the car approached on the unpaved road, Adong could no longer contain her excitement. She anxiously ran up to the car and peered through the window to catch a glimpse of her daughter. Atim was then led away by her great grandmother to a footpath at the entrance to the village. Her great grandfather had laid branches and an egg along the pathway for Atim to step on – a traditional welcome to mark her return to the village and to the extended family she had been dreaming of since she left.
Her mother then took over. She took Atim inside for a moment of peace and reflection before parading her in front of the other villagers, who had gathered under a large tree. Atim was passed around like a trophy, Adong’s long-awaited prize. "You have brought her home, where she belongs. Our family is now complete," said Atim’s grandfather to the ICRC.
*Not their real names