DR Congo: After devastating volcano eruption, families still looking for missing children

Left: an unaccompanied child after the May 22 eruption of Nyiragongo Volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Right: a family fleeing Goma along Rutshuru Road on May 27, 2021.
Left: an unaccompanied child after the May 22 eruption of Nyiragongo Volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Right: a family fleeing Goma along Rutshuru Road on May 27, 2021. © Gentil Jab Pretty / Eddy Sinzehera

The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on May 22 and the evacuation order for the city of Goma five days later have displaced thousands of people. Amidst frantic departures, some families were separated, leaving very young children to fend for themselves. A group of local organisations are working to care for these children and help them reunite with their families. 

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The unexpected eruption of Mount Nyiragongo during the night of May 22 sparked panic in the city of Goma, in DR Congo's North Kivu province. Lava flows destroyed a number of homes in neighbourhoods surrounding Goma. Locals, who had no warning of the eruption, had to flee.

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

The number of separated children increased when, days later, officials ordered the evacuation of Goma, sparking a mass exodus. Nearly 400,000 people fled the city, heading in all directions. Some went to Saké, about 30 km to the northwest, while other people headed due north to the Rutshuru territory. Then there were those who fled to Minova, in the neighbouring province of South Kivu, while others moved east in an attempt to cross the border into Rwanda. Many fled on foot, carrying suitcases, bundles and, in some cases, even mattresses, as they walked for hours, covering long distances. 

 'Residents were given advice: for example, write their phone number on a piece of paper and slip it into their children’s pockets'

Jack Sinzahera
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Our Observer, Jack Sinzahera, a member of the pro-democracy collective AMKA CONGO, went to the displaced persons camp in Rutshuru on Sunday, May 30. There, he met with families who were missing children as well as separated children, who were all alone: 

During the evacuation on May 27, residents were given advice: for example, write their phone number on a piece of paper and slip it into their children’s pockets. Even so, quite a few children were separated from their parents on the way. Due to congestion and crowds, some children lost sight of their parents and went the wrong way. We launched a WhatsApp group called "SOS Enfant Perdu Goma" [Editor’s note: "SOS Lost Child Goma"], to help separated families. 

The Territorial Youth Council in Rutshuru is providing food and shelter to children separated from their families. This is a screengrab of a video filmed May 30 in Rutshuru and sent to our team.
The Territorial Youth Council in Rutshuru is providing food and shelter to children separated from their families. This is a screengrab of a video filmed May 30 in Rutshuru and sent to our team. © Jack Sinzahera

'There are also children who said they fled all alone'

Roger Sebyera
Coordinator of the organisation Wildlife Conservation and Environment Protection around Virunga and member of the Territorial Youth Council in Rutshuru
Rutshuru, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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

It’s about 70 km from Goma to Rutshuru. People fleeing 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 they fled all alone. In our offices, we are currently housing a number of unaccompanied children who have nowhere else to go. Right now [Monday, May 31], there are about 20 children between one and seven years old. At night, we walk around Rutshuru. Sometimes we find lone children sleeping under the trees next to the road. 

Two sites for displaced persons 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 check back at our offices. 

Since Saturday, ten families have been reunited with their children. We are working on getting in touch with the people running displaced persons camps in Saké and elsewhere, to try and find other parents of missing children. But not all of the victims of this disaster are in displaced persons camps, some are staying with host families. The Red Cross is also helping us to connect these children with their families. In the meantime, the community is working together to feed these children and care for them. 

A social media campaign 

Key Castofas
Photographer / Castofas Shot It
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

While some children were separated from their families during the evacuation on May 27, others lost  their parents in the chaos after 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 andc ell phone numbers. Since then, these images have been circulating on Facebook, Twitter and in WhatsApp groups: 

I’m volunteering 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 neighbourhoods near [the volcano] were playing outside. They ran home, only to find their homes empty. In some of these cases, the parents were also far from home, working or carrying out other activities, so the children fled by themselves. 

LUCHA launched a campaign online to help parents find their lost children. FRANCE 24 has blurred their personal information for this article; however, you can find all the contact information for these parents on the LUCHA website.
LUCHA launched a campaign online to help parents find their lost children. FRANCE 24 has blurred their personal information for this article; however, you can find all the contact information for these parents on the LUCHA website. © Key Castofas / LUCHA.
Gentil Jab Pretty
Founder of the foundation SOS aux Enfants Défavorisés
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Gentil Jab Pretty, founder of the foundation SOS aux Enfants défavorisés (SOS for Disadvantaged Children) is also taking part in the LUCHA initiative: 

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

These children were separated from their families after the volcanic eruption on May 22 in Goma. FRANCE 24 blurred their faces.
These children were separated from their families after the volcanic eruption on May 22 in Goma. FRANCE 24 blurred their faces. © Gentil Jab fondation, SOS aux enfants défavorisés

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

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

"Since the start of the crisis, we’ve identified 177 unaccompanied children,” he said, explaining that 94 of those children have since been reunited with their families while a further 83 were sent to local centres run by social services. Marcel Muamba Kalala says he encourages any local groups caring for unaccompanied children to get in touch with the Red Cross. 

Organisations in North and South Kivu are also concerned about the conditions in which victims of the disaster are living. Many lack food, water and other basic necessities. Doctors Without Borders is also worried about an outbreak of cholera in the camps for displaced persons.