Families are still searching for missing children after devastating volcanic eruption

The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on May 22 and the evacuation order for the city of Goma five days later has displaced thousands.

Amid hectic quarters, some families were separated, leaving very young children to fend for themselves. A group of local organizations is committed to caring for these children and helping them reunite with their families.

The unexpected eruption of Mount Nyiragongo on the night of May 22 sparked panic in the town of Goma, in DR Congo’s North Kivu province. Lava flows destroyed a number of homes in neighborhoods around Goma. The locals, unaware of the eruption, had to flee.

At least 32 people, including three children, were killed as a direct result of the eruption, according to UNICEF. The organization also identified more than 1,000 children who were separated from their parents on the night of the eruption.

The number of separated children increased when officials ordered the evacuation of Goma days later, triggering a mass exodus. Nearly 400,000 people fled the city in all directions. Some went to Saké, about 30 km to the northwest, while others went straight north, to the Rutshuru area.

Then there were those who fled to Minova, in the neighboring province of South Kivu, while others headed east in an attempt to cross the border into Rwanda. Many fled on foot, carrying suitcases, bundles and in some cases even mattresses, walking for hours and covering long distances.

‘Residents were given advice: for example, write their telephone number on a piece of paper and put it in their children’s pockets’

Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Our observer, Jack Sinzahera, a member of the pro-democracy collective AMKA CONGO, went to the IDP camp in Rutshuru on Sunday, May 30. only:

During the evacuation on May 27, residents were given advice: for example, write their telephone number on a piece of paper and put it in their children’s pockets. Still, quite a few children were separated from their parents along the way.

Due to congestion and crowds, some children lost track of their parents and went in the wrong direction. We launched a WhatsApp group called “SOS Enfant Perdu Goma” [Editor’s note: “SOS Lost Child Goma”]to help divorced families.

The Territorial Youth Council in Rutshuru provides food and shelter to children separated from their families. This is a screenshot of a video filmed in Rutshuru on May 30th and sent to our team. © Jack Sinzahera ‘There are also children who say they fled all alone’

Coordinator of the Wildlife Conservation and Environment Protection organization around Virunga and member of the Territorial Youth Council in Rutshuru

Rutshuru, Democratic Republic of the Congo

In light of this emergency, the Rutshuru Territorial Youth Council has taken in about 20 children who had been separated from their families. Our team spoke to Roger Sebyera, a member of this group:

It is about 70 km from Goma to Rutshuru. People who fled were extremely stressed and with the crowd, if you lost sight of a family member for two or three minutes, you could easily lose them.

There are also children who said that they had fled all alone. In our offices we currently house a number of unaccompanied minors who have nowhere else to go. Straight away [Monday, May 31], there are about 20 children between one and seven years old.

In the evening we walk around Rutshuru. Sometimes we find lone children sleeping under the trees along the road.

Two sites for IDPs were set up in Rutshuru. We go there every morning to see if there are any families missing children. If there are, we write down their names and then come back to our offices.

Ten families have been reunited with their children since Saturday. We are working to connect with the people who run IDP camps in Saké and elsewhere to try to find other parents of missing children. But not all victims of this disaster are in IDP camps, some are staying with host families. The Red Cross also helps us connect these children with their families. Meanwhile, the community works together to feed and care for these children.

While some children were separated from their families during the evacuation on May 27, others lost their parents in the chaos following the initial eruption on May 22. On May 25, Goma photographer Key Castofas ​​took portraits of dozens of parents holding up signs with their names and phone numbers. Since then, these images have been circulating on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp groups:

I volunteer with a campaign launched by LUCHA [Editor’s note: This citizen movement, whose name roughly translates to Fight for Change, promotes social justice through non-violent means]. When the eruption happened, some children from neighborhoods were nearby [the volcano] were playing outside. They ran home, only to find their houses empty. In some of these cases the parents were also far from home, working or doing other activities, so that the children fled themselves.

LUCHA launched an online campaign to help parents find their lost children. Jowharhas blurred their personal information for this article; however, all contact details of these parents can be found on the LUCHA website. © Key Castofas ​​/ LUCHA.

Founder of the SOS aux Enfants Défavorisés foundation

Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Gentil Jab Pretty, founder of the SOS aux Enfants défavorisés (SOS for underprivileged children) foundation also participates in the LUCHA initiative:

Thanks to this initiative, we were able to identify 150 parents whose children disappeared after the eruption. At my foundation we have taken care of a total of 30 children. So far ten of them have found their respective families. I have six children who live with me at home and others with foster families in Saké. Every day I go to Saké to see if there are any families who are still looking for their children.

These children were separated from their families after the volcanic eruption on May 22 in Goma. Jowharclouded their faces. © Gentil Jab Foundation, SOS aux enfants defavorisés

Several NGOs are working to register displaced persons, but the exact number of missing children is still unknown. Our team spoke to Marcel Muamba Kalala, chairman of the North Kivu branch of the Red Cross. He told us that his organization has received 1,328 requests from parents who are still looking for their children.

These children are staying in Red Cross shelters in Mugunga, in North Kivu. Our team blurred the faces of the children. The Red Cross also registers the names of parents of missing children © Red Cross / North Kivu

“Since the start of the crisis, we have identified 177 unaccompanied children,” he said, explaining that 94 of those children have since been reunited with their families, while another 83 have been sent to local social services centers. Marcel Muamba Kalala says he is encouraging local groups caring for unaccompanied minors to get in touch with the Red Cross.

Organizations in North and South Kivu are also concerned about the conditions in which victims of the disaster live. Many lack food, water and other basic necessities. Doctors Without Borders is also concerned about an outbreak of cholera in the IDP camps.

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