Home beckons across the border for exiled Ivorian children


Goulaleu (Côte d'Ivoire) (AFP)

Hurbain Souomi was only five years old, but he still remembers the day he trekked 50 kilometres (30 miles) across the border into Liberia to escape gunfire strafing his Ivory Coast village.

"There was shooting everywhere. My big sister rounded us up and we ran away to go to Liberia," he recalled, caught up in a wave of violence linked to a disputed 2010 presidential election that would leave 3,000 people dead.

Now 11, Hurbain is nervous but excited to go home, ending six years as one of around 1,000 children growing up in neighbouring Liberia in refugee camps while separated from their families.

Setting off from Bahn, a village in northern Liberia, a Red Cross convoy snakes through the intensely green landscape of this border region to Goulaleu, where Hurbain was born in western Ivory Coast.

Accompanied by his two brothers Thierry, 10, and Oscar, 9, tears stream down Hurbain's face as a welcome party appears for the Souomis, with villagers waving mango tree leaves and rice plants in a festive ritual.

One old man dressed in traditional robes immediately jumps up, dancing towards the three little boys emerging from the Red Cross 4x4.

- Sister died in camp -

"My name is Lah Keuhoua Justin, and I am their grandad," he said. "I can't find the words to express my happiness to find myself in front of my grandchildren."

Justin said he didn't have the strength to walk the long distance across the border, but remembers the day they set off.

"We didn't have any idea where they went. Because of the Red Cross we eventually found out that they were in a Liberian refugee camp.

"Unfortunately their sister who took them over there died in the camp," he told AFP.

The children's mother also died giving birth not long after they left, their grandfather explained, and though their father was in hospital he would be home soon.

Hurbain is confused about his older sister's whereabouts. "I don't really know where she is," he says. He is too young to remember.

In his grandfather's arms, he closes his eyes.

- Foster families' anguish -

Since 2011, the Red Cross has reunited 300 children with their families, explains Varney Bawn, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Liberia.

"This is the fourth time we are reunifying Ivorian children with their parents this year," he told AFP.

The number of Ivorians living in Liberian refugee camps peaked at 220,000 following the 2010-11 violence, but has now dwindled to around 14,000.

The anguish is not only among families who have lost precious years with their children, but for the foster parents who took in the scared and unaccompanied youngsters who arrived at refugee camps on the Liberian side.

"I love these children," said Koulahi Sonni, who has been caring for 10-year-old Salomon and 6-year-old Estelle.

"I don't know how I will see them again."

The children's mother made it to the camp, but died weeks after giving birth to Estelle, leaving them in Sonni's hands.

- 'I searched everywhere' -

As he waited for their return, their father Robert Sankan Rufin recalled the terrible years when he could not trace his children and had no idea about their fate.

"When there was an attack here, I told my wife to take the children and get ahead of me to Liberia. After I crossed, I started looking for them.

"I searched in almost all the refugee camps, but I did not find them," he told AFP.

After Red Cross staff passed through with photos of Salomon, he recognised his son.

Estelle has never lived in Ivory Coast and Salomon will barely remember it, but the brother and sister will now begin the process of getting to know their family.