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Central Africa's Lost and Orphaned

Has the World Forgotten These Children?

While the international community continues to commit vast amounts of aid to Bosnia, there are many more orphaned, homeless children in Rwanda, Congo, and Burundi.

In the past, Westerners have only responded when wrenching photographs emerged of dying children in Somalia and Ethiopia. There is no large-scale starvation in Central Africa now, but the needs of children are great and long term.

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My visit in September to the refugee children of Rwanda made clear that it will be too late if we wait for the photographers to arrive.

In Gisenyi, my group saw dozens of lost and orphaned children who had returned from the refugee camps near Goma, being shuttled from one center to another to escape periodic shellings. The supervisor said he had no emergency plan to evacuate them if the situation worsened.

The genocide of 1994 - in which some 800,000 Rwandans died - left an estimated 400,000 children separated from their parents. While thousands have been reunited with their families, nearly 200,000 are still undocumented, and more than 8,000 remain crammed into orphanages and centers.

Many of these children watched as their parents were slaughtered by immediate neighbors. UNICEF says two-thirds of the children have seen someone killed, and 80 percent have lost at least one family member. In one center in Giterama, I saw dozens of infants, lying wide-eyed and listless on plastic sheeting in stifling, airless rooms. Nearly 300 more wandered in a dusty courtyard, waiting for the most meager dinner of potatoes and rice.

The Rwandan government wants to close the centers and put orphans in foster homes. It's a worthwhile goal, but too few families have opened their homes and hearts; most are simply too poor and overburdened. Support, even in the form of a chicken or a goat for foster families, might make a difference, but the vision for such programs is lacking.

The same sense of futility grips efforts to reunite families. The International Red Cross and Save the Children often are swamped by paperwork. In one case, we found a lost child whose father had been located in 1995, but the two were still not reunited. Glossy tracing books with heart-breaking photos of abandoned children are out of date before they can be circulated. How can a poor, illiterate mother identify a 1-year-old she last held when it was a newborn?

THERE also are many older children heading households without assistance. An estimated 85,000 Rwandan adolescents are caring for their younger sisters and brothers. They struggle to earn money to send their siblings to school, but most can hardly afford the dollar a year in school fees, much less the cost of uniforms and books.

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The amount of financial aid - $1.5 billion - allocated to Rwanda is impressive. But precious little has made it to those who need it most. The bureaucracy in Kigali is overwhelmed, corruption in villages is pervasive, and hostility toward outside groups offering help is growing.

The pitiful condition of these Rwandan children is beginning to be repeated in Congo, Burundi, and surrounding territories. There is new evidence that thousands of innocent refugees, including children, are being killed in Congo by forces loyal to President Laurent Kabila.

The situation in Central Africa is not unlike the murderous ethnic rivalries in Bosnia, but the plight of children in Africa is more desperate. Someone must speak out on their behalf. Organizations like UNICEF can take a more aggressive leadership role to highlight the crisis and find long-term solutions. In insecure regions along the borders, the UN High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF, and the UN High Commission for Human Rights must maintain a visible presence to monitor the situation and to protect the separated, orphaned, and vulnerable. But first, the world must pay attention.

* Jurate Kazickas, a freelance writer in New York, has visited Bosnia and Rwanda as a member of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

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