Thousands of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are at extreme risk of sexual violence, kidnapping and being forced to join armed militias, according to aid agencies. The recent upsurge in conflict in the eastern part of the country has led to many families being separated as they flee the violence - and aid workers are trying to reunite lost children with their parents before it’s too late,
A family seperated
When rebels attacked their village, siblings Imani, Anicet, Baraka and Kibonge - who is just four years old - were forced to flee into the surrounding forests.
Their parents were out getting food. When their mother Josephine returned, the children were gone. She spoke with representatives of the aid agency Save the Children
and describes her despair.
“I was scared that hunger and disease would strike them," she explains. "Because they were alone and had nowhere to go, I was so worried that they could be affected by all the evil things around.”
The parents fled to a refugee camp and began the search for their children. With the help of Save the Children, they were found close to their village - and the family was reunited.
"When I was separated from my mother, I felt so unwell - it was even difficult to eat," their 10-year-old son Anicet says, recounting the ordeal. "Now that I am here with my parents, I feel so much better than before."
Aid agency support
Aid agencies estimate almost a million people have been displaced in the North Kivu region of DRC by the upsurge in violence between rebels known as the M23 and government forces.
M23 is made up of former rebels who were integrated into the Congolese army but then deserted earlier this year, complaining of discrimination and poor treatment.
In recent weeks, the rebels have made advances - even occupying the regional capital Goma in November before withdrawing almost two weeks later.
Save the Children has identified 923 separated children in the worst hit areas, and there are probably thousands more in settlements across North Kivu, says spokesperson Katie Seaborne.
“Often in the chaos when families are leaving, children become separated from their families. They’re at extreme risk and we can only imagine how terrifying that must be for children," she explains.
Seaborne says the children are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and many could be forced to become child soldiers in the conflict.
Aid workers for the Red Cross say they have found very young children next to their parents’ lifeless bodies or wandering alone by the side of the road. The agency is also working to reunite families - which often involves days or weeks of searching and journeys of hundreds of kilometers.
Nadine Kanyere found her youngest son Ushindi in Goma two weeks ago after they were separated in an attack.
She says she feels alive again, with her children around her. She says their absence almost killed her. But she doesn't know where to go from here.
Life in the refugee camps remains tough and at times dangerous. Rebels often try to steal aid.
For some families, the stories of terror and flight have a happy ending. But there are hundreds, if not thousands more children who have been forced to flee - and are now alone in the midst of a brutal conflict.