DR Congo: parents frantically look for lost children after volcanic eruption

Goma, DR Congo: Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo has stopped rumbling, and Goma, the city that lies under its shadow, is on the mend.

Hundreds of parents, on the other hand, are still desperately looking for their children who were separated from them during the frenzied rush to safer ground.

Relief that Nyiragongo's threat appears to have passed is obvious in Ndosho, one of Goma's poorer areas. The wooden houses reverberate with songs and cries.

Other households, on the other hand, are in a state of despair.

When Goma was ordered to be evacuated on May 27, five days after Africa's most active volcano erupted again, many parents and children were separated.

Around 400,000 people, out of a total population of 600,000, fled the province seat of North Kivu, fearing that a potential catastrophe could follow a brief one-day eruption.

Some individuals started returning last weekend, and the pace ramped up towards the middle of the week as the earthquakes subsided.

Authorities indicated on Thursday that they were looking into the prospect of a "progressive repatriation" of the populace.

In her haste to flee, Pierrette Mihindano lost track of her three girls.

The search to reunite the family came to a successful conclusion.

On Wednesday, she dashed towards an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) van, where her three small daughters clambered out to throw themselves into her arms, one of whom is so small she can hardly walk.

'Find their footprints'

"I was in hospital when they ordered the evacuation of the city," Mihindano, who also has two boys, said between sobs.

"From that day on, I did not see my three daughters. After I left the hospital, I was going crazy at home. I started rushing everywhere, to Sake, to Mungunga, I made appeals on the radio trying to find them."

The three girls had washed up in Minova, a town tucked in one of Lake Kivu's coves southwest of Goma and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from their home, during the evacuation pandemonium.

"It was scary," said 12-year-old Paruis, the eldest of the girls. "I had a lump in my throat when I thought about my parents -- I couldn't eat."

The nightmare of separation continues for countless other evacuees.

Child welfare authorities estimate that some 1,300 children were separated from their families during the May 22-23 eruption or the May 27 exodus.

"We've been picking up children every day," Felicien Katenda, a member of the local Red Cross, said. His colleague Aline Bisimwa hugged a chubby little boy with a troubled look to her chest.

The youngster identified himself as Baraka Bahati and stated that he was three years old.

"This boy was lost on the night of the eruption," Bisimwa said. "As you can see, I carry him in my arms and he doesn't cry."

978 children have been reunited with their families, according to child-protection officials.

"The final child" 

Community aid networks have made their task easier in a region that is all too familiar with disasters.

"The Congolese public have shown extraordinary solidarity. Many families took in lost children," said ICRC protection officer Margot Champix:

Six contact points have been set up by the ICRC in Goma and neighboring districts where tens of thousands of displaced people have found temporary refuge.

"Host families come in with children they have taken in and have them registered. Then we search and with the grace of God, we find some of them," said Exode Banzo, a volunteer.

More than 300 children are still waiting to be reunited with their families, according to Edouard Beigbeder, the UNICEF Representative in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"It is really important to make sure that in coming days, with the return of displaced people to Goma, all reunifications are carried out, down to the last child," he said.

Many children have been traumatized by separation, and specially trained therapists are being brought in to assist them cope.

"Our mission here is to bring these children back to a normal state. We help them psychologically. But sometimes I also get carried away by their experience," said one of the workers, Nelson Tumusifu.

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