Reunited in Rwanda
Twenty years after genocide, a grandmother discovers two granddaughters she didn't know she had
Photos by Nadia Shira Cohen
Marie Mukambabazi hugs her granddaughter Philoméne Nziyumvira, above, as they meet for the first time, July 2014. Philoméne and her sister Françoise, born to Rwandan refugees who fled the 1994 genocide, were united with Marie through an International Red Cross program.
Published on Thursday, December 4, 2014
KIGALI, Rwanda — Sitting inside her small mud home on the outskirts of Rwanda’s capital, Marie Mukambabazi unfolded the Red Cross letter, preserved in a sheath of plastic, through which she’d first learned of the grandchildren at her side.
Like many in this small East African nation, Mukambabazi’s family had been torn apart in the mid-1990s, during Rwanda’s civil war and genocide. Separated from her husband and three of her seven children, who’d fled into neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, she eventually assumed that all were dead — until the day in 2009 when the message arrived at her door. The note was written in Rwanda’s national language of Kinyarwanda by a man who introduced himself as her son-in-law. According to the message, Mukambabazi's daughter Françoise had survived for years after she lost contact with her mother, ending up 1,000 miles from home in the Republic of Congo, which borders the DRC on the west. There, in a refugee camp on the banks of the Congo River, Françoise married and gave birth to four children before dying of AIDS-related complications in 2008.
Six years later, two of those children, Philoméne Nziyumvira, 9, and Jeanne Françoise Uwimana, 8, sat patiently with their grandmother, discussing their journey to their land of origin. Orphaned when their father died shortly after sending his letter — which was collected by Congolese Red Cross volunteers and delivered to Kigali by the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC — they were taken in by a refugee family in the town of Loukoléla, where their father had moved their family after their mother’s death. In 2011, when an ICRC delegation visited Loukoléla, the girls were registered in the ICRC’s Family Links Network — the backbone of a program called Restoring Family Links, which helps reunify families separated by conflict, disasters or migration.
In 2012, after a neighbor heard Mukambabazi’s name in a radio message searching for relatives of the children, their grandmother showed up at the ICRC’s Kigali office and filed a request to take them in. This July, the girls embarked on a multiple-day journey by boat, car and airplane to Kigali. Although they’d only recently learned their grandmother was alive, the links were unmistakable.
“Philoméne looks just like her mother,” said Mukambabazi, 57. “I knew they were family when I saw them.”
Although Mukambabazi’s tale may sound extraordinary, in Rwanda — a country 20 years removed from one of the greatest mass upheavals in modern history — stories of separation, loss and reunification abound on every hillside. Following Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, the 100-day period of mass murder that saw the deaths of up to a million people, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, roughly half the country’s remaining 7 million people were internally or externally displaced. After the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front took the country, nearly 2 million civilians and combatants, mostly members of the Hutu majority, fled Rwanda’s borders into exile. In the eastern DRC (part of the country then known as Zaire), where the refugee concentration was highest, and water, medicine and sanitation in short supply, a new humanitarian crisis soon erupted. Within a month of the mass July exodus, an estimated 30,000 refugees in the border town of Goma had died of cholera.
It is in this context that the Red Cross movement, which has worked to reunite families displaced by conflict since its origins in the 19th century, established its tracing activities in Rwanda and the wider Great Lakes region. In collaboration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF, national Red Cross societies and more than 60 other humanitarian agencies, the ICRC helped the displaced transmit messages, worked to verify the identity of parents and children and developed a centralized database to register unaccompanied minors who were candidates for reunification. By the end of 1997, when the worst of the crisis had subsided, the ICRC estimates that the database had helped more than 22,000 children reunite with members of their families.
Today, although Rwanda has been free of conflict since the late 1990s, years of unrest in neighboring DRC, as well as the complexity of many genocide-era cases, have kept Rwanda’s Family Links Network active. According to Ibrahim Dukuze, who heads the ICRC’s tracing activities in Kigali, ICRC-Rwanda is currently following up on more than 250 cases of unaccompanied minors within Rwanda and approximately 200 Rwandan minors outside the country’s borders. In 2013, ICRC-Rwanda helped reunify 117 Rwandan and Congolese children with their families and has facilitated an additional 76 reunifications since January. Last year, in collaboration with the Rwanda’s Red Cross society, it also helped separated relatives connect through more than 3,800 Red Cross messages, similar to the letter Mukambabazi received from her son-in-law in 2009.
Worldwide in 2013, the ICRC — together with national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies — distributed approximately 112,000 Red Cross messages, facilitated 357,000 phone calls between relatives and helped more than 1,400 children reunite with their families.
As Dukuze explains, a typical reunification begins when children identified as unaccompanied by Red Cross personnel are registered in the Family Links Network, with oversight from a central tracing agency at ICRC headquarters in Geneva. After receiving information from the country where the children are found, ICRC employees initiate a search for family in the country of origin. Often, matches are made through what Dukuze refers to as “classical tracing” — visits by caseworkers to neighborhoods or villages where it’s believed family members may be living. Sometimes, follow-up radio communiqués, which broadcast the names of the children and some relatives, are needed. Occasionally, the organization tries both methods repeatedly but comes up empty.
“Usually, we have enough information to find a relative by going into the field,” Dukuze said. “But sometimes we think we have all the information, and they’re just not there.”
Mukambabazi’s case — which took more than three years to carry out after her granddaughters were registered in the network — is a testament to the many complexities that can hinder the reunification process. In part, the case was difficult because her daughter Françoise had settled in such a remote location. One of more than 300,000 Rwandans who fled into the DRC’s jungles in 1996 after the Rwandan army invaded to disperse the refugee camps at its borders, she’d walked for months across the country’s vast interior, sleeping rough and often going hungry. When she finally settled in a camp in the Republic of Congo, she was not only 1,000 miles from home but a three-day journey — two of it by riverboat — from the country's capital, Brazzaville. Years later, when Brazzaville-based Red Cross staff discovered her children in Loukoléla — a riverside town of mud and brick houses, dancehalls and women selling dried fish — this distance would prove a major challenge.
“Just getting to these girls was very difficult,” said Arlette Mayama, who heads the ICRC’s delegation in Brazzaville and traveled to Loukoléla several times to facilitate the reunification. “It takes an entire day of driving, then two days on a boat. And if it rains, you are stuck.”
Subsequent obstacles arose in convincing the family that had taken in the girls to release them. According to the ICRC, the foster father — the head of the Rwandan community in Loukoléla and a friend of the girls’ father, Daniel Nziyumvira — had sent Philoméne, Jeanne Françoise and Jeanne Françoise’ twin sister, Jeanine, to school, but also required them to perform domestic chores and work in a small shop adjacent to the family home. With his own children attending school outside of the village, he was reluctant to be left without help. In a Red Cross message sent to Mukambabazi in April, he and his wife requested her permission to allow one of the girls to remain. Eventually, after lengthy negotiations with the ICRC, the man agreed to the departure of all three. Yet on the morning they were due to leave by riverboat, one girl, Jeanine, balked. Both Philoméne and Jeanne Françoise believe their foster father scared her into staying.
“He used to tell us our grandmother was dead,” said Jeanne Françoise. “He said there were only killers in Rwanda, that there was no food and people were dying. I think Jeanine believed him.”
According to Mayama, the foster father has since agreed to help Jeanine rejoin her sisters, which she says is likely to occur by the end of January. Another sibling, a 16-year-old half-brother who is staying with a paternal aunt in the Republic of Congo, may eventually travel to Rwanda as well, though he has yet to decide whether he wants to make the trip.
For now, Philoméne and Jeanne Françoise are adjusting to life in Rwanda without their other siblings, learning to speak Kinyarwanda and preparing to begin school in January. Still, despite receiving basic items from the ICRC, including clothes, shoes, mosquito nets and access to Rwanda’s national health-insurance program, the difficulties they face are apparent. Even by the standards of Rwanda’s poor, Mukambabazi’s home is modest. She struggles to feed her now six-person household — which also includes two sons and another granddaughter — on a small subsistence plot of beans, bananas, potatoes and cassava. Inside her three-room house, the walls, crumbling in sections, are bare, except for a hologram poster depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
As is common when displaced families are reunified, there are also additional problems. According to Dukuze, the ICRC has also identified relatives of Nziyumvira, including a grandmother, who is materially better off than Mukambabazi and has expressed interest in gaining custody of the children. Mukambabazi appears to be open to the possibility. She insists, however, that she’ll only release the girls upon payment of a dowry — money or cows that is typically given from a groom’s family to a bride’s at the time of marriage. The ICRC, Dukuze says, has been “softly trying to counsel” both parties.
For all the trauma they’ve endured, the sisters, dressed in skirts and second-hand T-shirts — Philoméne’s shirt showing off a Hollister surfer girl; Jeanne Françoise’s depicting Mickey Mouse — appear resilient, cuddling with each other and their ICRC caseworker and grinning when they talk of starting school.
Still, with their siblings remaining in the Republic of Congo, their journey has not yet ended.
“I don’t miss it,” said Jeanne Françoise when asked about her former life in Loukoléla. “But I want to go there and bring back my sister.”
Editor's note: The photography for this story was funded by the International Committee of the Red Cross.