Rebecca Nyiringindi scanned the sprawling refugee camp in eastern Congo, searching for one person among the thousands of hungry and homeless.
“My mother's name is Alphonsine,” the 10-year-old said softly, sucking her thumb. “She's short. She's very dark.”
Rebecca was among more than 150 children searching for their parents Thursday in a camp in Kibati, just miles from where soldiers and Tutsi rebels guarded a tense front line, raising fears that fighting would resume in this mineral-rich region.
Some 70,000 refugees have fled to Kibati since fighting intensified in eastern Congo in August, displacing at least 250,000 people despite the presence of a 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, its largest in the world.
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Aid agencies took advantage of a lull in fighting this week to return to camps near the front line and resume registering children who were separated from their parents during the conflict in Congo's North Kivu province.
Some were clearly traumatized. Zawadi Bunzigiye, 6, stared down at her grubby blue dress and said, in a voice barely above a whisper, “I'm afraid of bullets.”
Many children fled with only the clothes on their backs. When fighting erupted Oct. 27 in the rebel-controlled town of Kibumba, about 12 miles from the camp, Rebecca said she fled on foot, accompanied only by the family's goat.
“But I lost it,” she said. “It was a chocolate-colored goat. It was a big goat.”
She said her parents sent her to the camp, believing she'd be safer there.
“The military came in. I was afraid,” she said. “I hid next to the radio tower. My parents said, ‘Go, we'll come after you.' I went along the road and I didn't see them again.”
There are no schools in the camp, and young children run underfoot all day, dodging waves of new arrivals. At night, say residents speaking in fearful whispers, drunken soldiers rampage through, raping women and girls.
Neema Maombi, 8, fled the northern town of Nyanzale, about 60 miles from the provincial capital of Goma, in early September with her sister Solange, 16. Her account of being caught in this complicated conflict is simple.
“I heard bullets,” she said. “I ran.”
Asked to describe her parents, the child plucked at her tattered blue shirt and said: “My mother is small. My father is short.”
“My mother makes good food, like potatoes and beans,” she added with a shy smile. “She makes banana beer.”
UNICEF says hundreds of children have been separated from their families since fighting flared in August, and that overall more than 1,600 children in the province are seeking their parents. Just 17 have been reunited with their families in the last three days in Kibati.
Those who have not are taken in by other families – and they wait.
“Children who are separated are particularly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, violence and recruitment into armed groups,” said UNICEF spokesman Jaya Murthy.
Their young ages and inability to give detailed information – plus the lack of official records in the Congolese countryside – make it even more difficult to track down the children's families.
“We're doing everything possible to find the families of these children,” Murthy said. “But we're talking about tens of thousands of people who have fled. It's just not that easy to find where these people have gone.”
Aid workers said they plan to take photos of the children and post them at the camp to try to help them reunite with their families.
Congo's conflict has been fueled by festering hatreds left over from the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which half a million Tutsis were killed.
More than a million Hutu extremists who participated in the slaughter fled Rwanda for the safety of Congo.
Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, accuses the Congolese government of not doing enough to protect minority Tutsis from the Hutu militias.