• "I got a message from Red Cross saying they thought they had found them in Congo." (Australian Red Cross / Sarah Landro)Source: Australian Red Cross / Sarah Landro
Emmanuel*, 34, was just 14 years old when he witnessed rebels murder his family in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. He didn't know if he had a living relative until the Australian Red Cross tracing team helped him find his uncle and aunty 18 years later. Here's his story as told to Kimberly Gillan.
Kimberly Gillan

16 Mar 2016 - 1:53 PM  UPDATED 16 Mar 2016 - 2:59 PM

In 1996 I was walking home from school when my neighbour grabbed me and covered my mouth, pulling me into his house. Through the fence he pointed into my family yard where I saw militia kill my parents, brother and three sisters. I was only 14 years old and had lost my family to genocide. They were caring, loving, hardworking and happy.

If I had gone straight into the house I could have ended up getting killed. But I kept thinking that maybe I could have saved them, which is a horrific thing to have your mind.

I wondered what had happened to my uncle and aunty and hoped they had survived. They lived a five-minute drive from my family home and we had always been together.

My neighbour decided we should try to cross the border to Tanzania that night.

We were travelling by foot and were frequently stopped by militia asking for money, so we had to walk overnight and rest during the day, hiding in bushes so nobody could see us.

I always told myself that because I didn't see them being killed, there was maybe a 5 per cent chance they could be alive, so I had to keep looking.

It was so difficult; you're imagining you are going to die and are trying to get away to save your life, but you also feel lost, trying to cope with losing important members of your family.

Everyone was crying for their lives and whatever they had lost at home, so [at least] I felt like I was not alone.

After four days we arrived at a refugee holding place in Tanzania where we waited for four weeks until we were transferred to a refugee camp. We were the first convoy to enter that camp, which was just forest. We were given plastic sheeting and had to find a way to build a house to sleep in. It was horrible.

My neighbour decided to go back to the Congo.

It was difficult to find a family to live with because they felt like you didn't deserve to be with them. They would be welcoming in the first month or two, then would start using you, making you work hard like a slave.

So I moved to the Nyarugusu refugee camp in 1997 where I was finally allowed to live on my own and went to high school there.

I always kept wondering about my uncle and aunty. I looked for them amongst groups of refugees and checked the temporary centres in Tanzania, asking people if they had seen them. I went to the Red Cross office and wrote letters to other refugee camps in other countries in Africa to see if they were there, but I wasn't successful.

Later I was transferred to another camp and eventually, in 2005, I was granted a humanitarian visa to come to Australia. I was 23 years old and had been in refugee camps for nine years.

I had seen a woman called Alfoncine in the refugee camp. But it wasn't until we were both settled in Perth in 2009 that we got together and got married. We have two sons Lance and Lawrence, who make me so happy. It's everyone's dream to have their own children and having my own family means I have people who really know me and share my blood.

I had even forgotten their voices. It was very emotional. 

Even here in Australia, I never stopped looking for my aunt and uncle. I kept asking new migrants if they had seen them or heard where they were but I was still unsuccessful. I always told myself that because I didn't see them being killed, there was maybe a 5 per cent chance they could be alive, so I had to keep looking.

I went to a Red Cross office in 2014 and they said they would try to help. I gave them as much information as I could remember. I drew them a map to give them a clear view of how to get to my uncle and aunty's address. Then we sat back and waited.

Eight months later, I got a message saying they thought they had found them in Congo. The Red Cross gave them my number and my aunty texted me and said, "I'm here, I'm your mum," because back home, your uncle and aunty call you their children.

I got to speak to her on the phone and couldn't believe it was her – I had even forgotten their voices. It was very emotional. They simply thought I was dead because there was no way I could have fled on my own at the age of 14 and survived the attacks and ambushes from the militia and have crossed [to Tanzania] without having money.

They kept calling back every few hours when each family member got home and kept saying, “We still can't believe it”.

If you didn't witness their death, then keep trying until you finish with all the resources you have.

They were so happy that I had made it to Australia. I told them that life in Perth is completely different to Congo – there is a good healthcare system and [financial] assistance for studying. They wished they were here.

I feel like a new person. Even though they are very far away, at least I know they are there and I can talk to them, and they can support me when the worst comes. If I need advice, I can get on the phone and say, 'Can you give me some tips?' I am hoping to visit them with my wife and children soon – the only thing holding me back is money issues.

For people who are trying to find loved ones, I say never give up. If you didn't witness their death, then keep trying until you finish with all the resources you have. It's very important to have family members around and I am so grateful they were found – I feel like I have been born again.

Emmanuel's surname has been withheld to protect his aunty and uncle, who still live in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 


For more information about Red Cross tracing, go to the Red Cross website.


Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @kimberly_writes.



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