Côte d’Ivoire: Helping families reunite after crisis
When Nestor Gonkapieu heard gunshots ring out in his village in December 2010, he didn’t wait to see who was shooting before running for cover. “In 2002, the same sound preceded a massacre here,” he remembers.
Nestor’s daughter, Cyprienne, was playing outside the village with other children. Nestor says he panicked and fled west from his home in Kouyagulpelou, which lies a few miles from the Liberian border. Finding her family gone, 10-year-old Cyprienne also ran, but in the opposite direction.
Cyprienne was one of over 600 children who were separated from their families during post-election violence last year. The ensuing conflict displaced 1 million people. In response to the crisis, the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) provided more than US$16 million to UN agencies and partners.
That included more than $269,000 for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to protect children and women against abuse and violence.
“CERF funding was critical to jump-start life-saving operations that enabled us to reunify and protect children from abuse and violence at the onset of the crisis last year,” says Christina de Bruin, UNICEF’s Deputy Representative in Côte d’Ivoire.
“Unfortunately, if we look at either natural disasters or conflict, when family members have to leave their homes in a rush, it’s very common that minors and young children [find themselves] unaccompanied.”
Bringing families together
UNICEF and partner organizations, including Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and Caritas Côte d’Ivoire, have worked since December 2010 to document, trace and reunify children with their families.
“When children are separated from their families, they are vulnerable and prone to violence and abuse,” says Ms. de Bruin.
On the road, Cyprienne started following a young woman with a two-month-old baby on her back. She was called Clarisse Kouianou. They spoke the same language, and Clarisse invited Cyprienne to stay with her. “I couldn’t leave her crying in the street,” Clarisse said.
Clarisse and her husband, Firmin, took in three lost children that day, but room and board were not free. Cyprienne worked long hours in the town of Danané selling beef skins for Clarisse, sometimes until 10 p.m., according to Irene Capet, Emergency Response Coordinator with Caritas. Four months passed and Cyprienne heard nothing of her family.
Luckily, UNICEF’s partners were already in the process of documenting and tracing families, and sending messages to village chiefs and community leaders on the radio and over megaphone in camps for the internally displaced.
Ms. de Bruin explains that the point was “to get the message out to families: do you have a child missing? But also to get the message out to children: are you with your parents, yes or no?”.
Ms. Capet learned of Cyprienne’s situation in April. She began looking for Cyprienne’s father by travelling from village to village.
By talking with a village chief, Ms. Capet was eventually able to find him. He had fled to Liberia. In May, Ms. Capet took Cyprienne back to her village to see her father and stepmother.
“I was overjoyed,” Cyprienne says from under a tree in her village of thatched huts, surrounded by cocoa and banana fields. “I thought I would never see my family again.”
Reporting by Laura Burke.
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