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Aid Groups Help Rwandan Kids Home

Number of lost refugee children is largest since WWII

It was a special day and Mrs. Mukantabana put on her very best white embroidered dress. Her dead sister's son Bi Seganiana had been missing in Zaire as a refugee for 2-1/2 years and now he had come home.

The two met on a muddy field outside a Kigali orphanage last Friday, surrounded by hundreds of other children in rags who had also walked barefoot for more than a week to end their long exile.

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Mukantabana cried out and held the 15-year-old boy in a strong hug. He made a choking sound and clung back.

"We're going back to the house right now and have a party," she said, squeezing him again. "We'll eat lots of meat and talk."

It was the end of a long quest by Mukantabana to find her nephew. She had put up notices and asked everyone she knew for news of the boy who had fled to the Mugunga camp in Zaire. Eventually his name turned up on a computer of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is helping reunite separated families now that 500,000 out of an estimated 1.2 million exiled Rwandan refugees have come home.

This was a happy ending, although Bi's three siblings are still missing.

But the reality is grimmer for 43,000 other children who are separated from their families in what aid workers say is the largest number of unaccompanied young refugees since World War II.

The numbers have swollen by an additional 3,000 with the return over the last week of people from refugee camps in Zaire. Tens of thousands of other children who did not make it home may be wandering without their parents in eastern Zaire at the mercy of soldiers and hunger, says Kigali-based ICRC spokeswoman Nina Winquist-Galbe.

Bi was among the hundreds of thousands of Hutu Rwandans who fled to Zaire in 1994 fearing reprisals for the genocide of up to 1 million mainly Tutsi people by the ousted Hutu-led government. The boy fled with his parents, but his mother died of cholera and his father then disappeared.

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Now, as the human multitude reversed its exodus, filling the roads leading from the border, young stragglers were either left behind deliberately or could not keep up with their parents on the trek.

A common sight along the highways of Rwanda is crying barefoot children lagging behind a parent who strides briskly to return home quickly. Some children are tied with cord to their mothers.

"When an adult takes one step, a child takes three," says Ms. Winquist-Galbe. "Normally a child is an asset for Rwandans. But they become burdens when parents can barely take care of themselves. So in the exodus from the camps they were often left behind."

One of those now on his own is Ntaka Burimunana, who walked from the Katale refugee camp in Zaire for two weeks before reaching the safety of the orphanage here.

After his mother died in the camp, his father left him to fend for himself. The boy now hopes to stay with other relatives.

"I'm happy to be here," said Ntaka after arriving at the orphanage. "But I'm worried about my family. What will happen if I cannot find them?"

He stood in line along with hundreds of other new arrivals. They all were dressed in ragged clothes so dirty after 2-1/2 years of constant use they were a uniform grey-beige.

Most of the children had walked barefoot back to Rwanda and ICRC workers said they appeared malnourished. Many had melancholy and frightened stares - and plastic bracelets given to them by aid workers, marked with their names so they would not be lost again.

Most of them were between eight and 12 years old and Winquist-Galbe expressed confidence they would be reunited with relatives within a couple of weeks.

But there were many children under 3 who did not even know their own names, let alone where their parents had come from.

"This is a big problem," she said. "These are the ones we worry about most."

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