Tracing and reuniting families after 14 years of war

Shortly after David Wilson left his home in Ganta two years ago to buy cassava in a nearby village, a fierce battle between government and rebel forces broke out in the town behind him.

When the retired schoolteacher finally returned to his house in the once bustling market town on Liberia's northern border with Guinea, there was no sign of his four children.

"I was cut off from my children when the fighting broke out and all along I thought they were dead because the bombing and the gunfire was so heavy," Wilson told IRIN.

For 18 months, he mourned their loss.

In fact, his kids were safe. But thinking their parents had perished in the battle, they had fled over the nearby border to Guinea where they ended up in a refugee camp.

Working on the off-chance that one of their relations might still be alive to recognise them, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) circulated their photos on posters put up in public places in Liberia as part of its campaign to reunite thousands of separated children with their families.

And in November last year, an excited father picked out the faces of all four children; Geekor, David, Cecilia and Davidetta on one such poster pasted on a well in Ganta.

He immediately passed a message to them through the ICRC and they responded. Finally, last week, all four children tumbled out of a Red Cross Toyota Landcruiser at the Ganta border crossing and rushed into their father's arms.

"I never thought I would see my parents again after we were separated by the fighting in Liberia," said 13-year-old Geekor. "I thought they were all dead."

"God answered my numerous prayers when I saw their photos on the ICRC posters of missing children in search of their parents and I was filled with happiness that my children are alive," said his 60-year-old father, weeping with joy.

Since Liberia's 14-year civil war ended in August 2003, the ICRC has managed to put 2,300 separated children back in touch with their families by launching a series of five poster campaigns.

So far more than 600 youngsters have been reunited with their families as a result of such contacts. Most of them, like the four children of the Wilson family, ended up in refugee camps in Guinea.

Vasily Fadeev, the ICRC spokesman in Guinea, said the Red Cross was managing to reunite about 30 Liberian children a month with their relatives.

In fact, the ICRC has even managed to bring home some Liberian orphans who never had any relatives to claim them in the first place.

Six-year-old Gorgboyee Paye was one of these.

He used to live at a church-run orphanage for 54 children in Ganta. But when the battle broke out in March 2003 that led to the Wilson family becoming separated, Gorgboyee found himself caught up in a crowd of frightened civilians fleeing towards the Guinean border.

A woman who was running away with three children of her own saw the lost and nearly naked child and swept him under her wing. Like the Wilson children, they ended up in Laine refugee camp near Nzerekore, the capital of Guinea's southeastern Forest Region.

Reverend Cyrus Saye, the head of the orphanage in Ganta, was there singing hymns at the border to welcome Gorgboyee home. The young boy, decked out in a new denim suit, climbed down from the Red Cross vehicle, speechless, but smiling from ear to ear.

The ICRC said in a statement that its family tracing division was currently working on 716 new cases of separated children, of whom 411 were living at refugee camps in Guinea.

According to the UNHCR, there were nearly 150,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea when the Liberian civil war ended, but many of these have since come home.

Tens of thousands trekked back spontaneously soon after the peace agreement was signed in 2003. And in October 2004 the UNHCR launched an official campaign of voluntary return and resettlement.