The violence in Central African Republic forced 97,000 civilians to flee across the border to Chad. Some 1,200 of those in flight were unaccompanied or separated children, who now long to find their families and return to school and to safety, or at least some semblance of normality.
“What I want most is to find my father,” said Lamine, 12. “I don’t know if he is alive or dead. If I knew that… then I could at least move on.”
The attempts to get children back to their families have met with some success. Working together, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Chad’s Ministry of Social Action and NGOs, including the Chadian Red Cross, CARE and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), have reunited 442 of the 946 children registered thus far, using photo identification in cross-border operations.
Most of the children are spread across different camps in southern Chad, among them Doyaba, Moundou, Doba and Danamadja. But UNICEF believes there are more unaccompanied or separated children, yet to be registered.
For those remaining in the camps, many live in communal tents overseen by government social workers or NGO staff, with women cooking rice and sauce for them. The children also receive psycho-social support. Some 360 of the children are staying with host families – neighbours who they knew from CAR, or in some cases, families who simply took them in.
The violence in CAR erupted so suddenly in towns and villages that it left no time for a planned exodus. People simply took off amidst the chaos, families often splitting up as some family members fled to Cameroon, or even the Democratic Republic of Congo, while others fled to Chad.
Some of the children fled after their parents were killed before their own eyes. Abdel Karim, 17, from the CAR capital, Bangui and now in Doyaba camp just outside the city of Sarh, told IRIN: “I miss my family the most –I miss my mother. I came from school and saw a massacre. It was the anti-balaka. There were machetes. They cut my leg…I never found my mother. So I came here.”
Primary-school-age children in Doyaba attend the makeshift school set up by camp residents, but secondary school students have no study options.
Abdou Aziz Tarik, 17, told IRIN: “I want to study again…before the war I lost my education. If I could study I could make something of my life.”
Many of the unaccompanied girls did not attend school in CAR – instead they looked after their younger siblings or sold fish and other food in the market. Adama Ousmane, 15, told IRIN she was at the market when the anti-balaka militia came and decapitated her neighbour and her daughter. “I ran away. The village chief helped me by giving me some food. Then the military put me on a truck to come here [to Doyaba]. I was alone.”
According to Bakary Sogoba, child protection officer at UNICEF, there is now a better level of help for children involved in complex cross-border tracing operations. Training has been given to some 70 members of the Ministry of Social Protection and NGO partners on child protection practices, including documenting non-accompanied and separated children.
Some children who have looked on as their friends were reunited told IRIN they were starting to lose hope. But for others reunification is just a question of time. For Aboubakar Abdou, 17, there is a mixture of frustration and hope. “How can I survive here? I have no family,” Aboubakar told IRIN. “My father was killed in the fighting…but my mother is in Cameroon, and I will find her soon.”