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Volcanic Eruption Displaces Children from Families in DRC, Rwanda - 2002-01-26

Hundreds of children wait in refugee camps in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, hoping their parents will find them. Many families were split apart last week when a volcano erupted near the Congolese town of Goma.

In this muddy refugee camp about 20 kilometers from the Congolese border, 16-year-old Bahati waits anxiously for news of his family. He has not seen his mother or two younger brothers since he left for school on the day the volcano erupted, more than a week ago.

He says, "I was at school when it happened. When I came back home, nobody was there. Everyone had already gone."

So Bahati fled across the border to the Rwandan town of Gisenyi, and then found his way further east to the Nkamira refugee camp. Here, along with scores of other children, he waits for someone to come looking for him.

"I am praying that God keeps my family safe," he says. "And one day I hope to find them."

In the meantime, he would like some more clothes to wear - he has nothing but the ones on his back. And he would like to be able to play soccer with the other children. Right now they only have playing cards to entertain themselves.

Daphrose Mugorewendekwe works with the British charity Save the Children, which is running this camp and is also responsible for reuniting children with their parents in other camps. She says each refugee camp keeps a list of unaccompanied children and exchanges that information with other camps.

"We send this list to the team there, and we have the list from there," she says. "Then when parents come, we see on this list if the children have been registered here or there."

At Nkamira camp, they originally had 102 unaccompanied children on the register. Ms. Mugorowendekwe says more than 60 of them have been reunited with their families.

One of those reunions took place while VOA was visiting the camp.

Twenty-two-year old Maombi Bukumbangoy has been looking after her six brothers and sisters since their parents died several years ago. After the volcano destroyed their home, she and the rest of the family got separated from their 13-year-old brother, Tonton.

"When we left Goma, we went across the border to Gisenyi," she says. "But there were so many people in Gisenyi when we arrived, we got separated. I just lost him in the crowd."

She searched for Tonton for days before finally locating him Saturday at Nkamira camp.

"I am staying in Gisenyi, and I have been looking everywhere for my brother," she says. "I went to Mudende, but I did not find him. I went to Ruhengeri, but he was not there either. So then, she says, I came here and luckily I found him."

But not before 13-year-old Tonton had spent more than a week alone in the camp. "I was very worried without my family, but when I saw my sister I was happy," he says.

A Save the Children spokesman notes that at least 100 other children - and maybe as many as 300 - are still separated from their parents. Some of them are as young as two years old.

Part of the problem is logistics. When the lava came to Goma, some people fled across the border into Rwanda, while others ran the other direction, to the Congolese town of Sake. Lost children could literally be a hundred kilometers away from their parents, in a different country. Aid workers, however, will keep trying to reunite them, for as long as it takes.