Congolese child starts life as an orphan and refugee

Telling the Human Story, 15 November 2012

© UNHCR/F.Noy
Just three days old, Emmanuel is both an orphan and a refugee. His grandmother and two siblings are unable to care for him.

KISORO, Uganda, 15 November (UNHCR) Emmanuel has had a terrible start in life: aged just three days old, he is already an orphan and a refugee in an area that lacks any sign of a lasting peace.

The toddler was born days after his mother crossed into Uganda's Kisoro district to escape some of the latest fighting in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province. But the exhausted 39-year-old woman died in childbirth and Emmanuel was sent immediately to Potters Village, a Church-linked child crisis centre in Kisoro.

Many of the more than 40,000 refugees who have fled waves of renewed fighting in North Kivu province since April are children. But few are so young and in such a tragic situation as Emmanuel, whose father and five-year-old brother became separated from the family during their flight and have not been seen since.

Emmanuel at least still has two young sisters (one aged 10 years, and the other 18 months) and a grandmother, Madarina, but the old lady is unable to look after the boy and he has been classified as a person of special concern to the UN refugee agency. "He lost his two parents and UNHCR has to look out for him. We are somehow his parents," said Gabriel Katende, a UNHCR field officer in Kisoro.

"I can take care of the 18-month-old baby [Emmanuel's sister] if I am given milk, but I can't manage the newborn," said Madarina, who was happy that Emmanuel was at least safe and being looked after. "If he had stayed with me, he would have died," the 65-year-old added.

All things considered, it's a wonder his mother made it to Uganda alive and in time to give birth in a proper hospital in Kisoro town, rather than in the bush. It was a long and hazardous journey over hilly, forested country from their town, Kitchanga

Madarina retraces the journey in her mind. "We were in the house at night when we heard gunfire," she said, adding that her pregnant daughter left with the two girls, aged 10 years and 18 months. The son was left behind with a grandfather because his mother and grandmother could not manage him as well his whereabouts remain unknown.

The grandmother left the next day. "I met again with my daughter in the bush and we walked for nine hours through the forest before we reached Itongo, where we got a lift by car to the border."

A week later, her daughter gave birth, but the journey had proved too much of an ordeal and she died. She was buried in Kisoro after a small funeral. 'The 10-year-old asked about her mother and I had to explain to her that she had died," Madarina said.

The tragedy continues for Emmanuel; soon he will be all alone because his grandmother and sisters are due to leave for a refugee settlement at Rwamwanja, almost 350 kilometres north of Kisoro. The settlement was opened in April to cope with the fresh cross-border influx and it currently provides shelter to 26,000 Congolese refugees.

But at least Emmanuel is in good hands at Potters Village, which cares for abandoned babies, teenage mothers and destitute pre-school children. "We decided that Potter's Village is the best place where Emmanuel can find temporary refuge before a long-term solution is found," explained UNHCR's Katende.

Jenny Green, a priest and director of Potters Village, said the baby boy was the youngest child in the centre. He arrived aged three hours. "He was a bit little, but not dangerously little. We fed him and I spent the night with him," explained Emily Davies, a volunteer paediatric nurse. "Potters Village is about keeping the family together. We are trying to see how best to work that out for Emmanuel," she added.

Reverend Green said the best solution for Emmanuel and any young child would be to be with family. "We hope to keep in touch with his grandma. When the situation calms down in Congo, we will see with UNHCR if there is an uncle or an aunt that is willing to take care of Emmanuel."

The Potters Village director said there would be many challenges trying to find a lasting solution for the baby and his surviving relatives with the help of UNHCR. "But we will try," she vowed. "In the long term, if he stays here we will try to find a foster family."

By Céline Schmitt in Kisoro, Uganda

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