For nearly one year, Alidou* and Mohamed’s* father thought they were dead. They two boys became separated from their parents when fighting broke out in Boda, a mining town in western Central African Republic in January last year.
Fleeing into the bush together, the 11- and 12-year-old lived on their wits. From the nomadic Peuhl tribe, they had been raised in the bushlands of CAR. Boys of their age are expected to care for herds of hundreds of cattle and they knew how to survive alone until – by a stroke of luck – they were found by their grandfather, who had also fled to the bush.
But fighting still stalked them, and eventually they and their grandfather ended up trapped in an enclave of Peuhl people in a town called Yaloke. A group of more than 600 Peuhls had been corralled there in late April last year by armed Anti-Balaka militia who have been involved in tit-for-tat attacks against armed Peuhl herders. Stranded in Yaloke, the boys had no contact with their father and did not know if their mothers had survived.
In February, UNICEF made it a priority to track down and reunify the 22 separated and unaccompanied children living in the Yaloke enclave. Field visits to Yaloke had found that these children suffered disproportionately from malnutrition and were not responding to treatment. Some of the youngest of the children who had been separated from their parents were refusing to eat and had been in and out of hospital for months.
With teams from World Vision, UNHCR, International Red Cross and the International Office of Migration, UNICEF started the difficult task of tracing the families of these children. Early success came when the name of Alidou and Mohamed’s father matched the records of families living in Boda. Contact was coordinated by an IOM team in Boda, and for the first time in more than a year, the three generations were able to speak via a mobile phone.
Just over one week later, the boys were reunited with their family. Their 13-hour trip from Yaloke to Boda had to be carefully managed. They were still at risk from militia checkpoints on the road along the way, and two UNICEF cars and a military escort from the UN Peacekeeping Mission were organised to ensure their safety.
It was evening when the boys arrived in Boda, dressed in new clothes and carrying two big bags filled with essentials like toothpaste, towels, soap, shoes, and sleeping mats provided by UNICEF. The whole community came out to welcome them and a special meal, prayers and speeches heralded the arrival of these lost sons.
The search continues for the families of the rest of the children who have been separated or are unaccompanied in Yaloke. UNICEF and our partners continue the challenging job of tracking down their parents who might have died in the conflict, fled to neighbouring countries or remain in hiding. For half of the children, the search for their parents is being conducted in partnership with UNHCR outside CAR (mostly in neighboring Cameroon and Chad). Just last week, the families of two children were found living as refugees. Meanwhile, UNICEF is coordinating with the CAR Government to find the rest of the families in CAR.
UNICEF will not stop until all of these children are reunited with their families, and the last of the lost children are able to return to their parents.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.