PALORINYA, Uganda — On a pale dirt road in the Palorinya refugee camp in northern Uganda, Raida Ijo clung to her 16-year-old son, Charles Abu. They sobbed quietly into each other’s shoulder. They had been separated for 19 months, since the day that fighting broke out between rebels and government troops in their village in South Sudan.
Charles was halfway through a math class in their village, Andasire, in South Sudan’s Central Equatoria state, when the shooting started. He ran for the bush, and after a sleepless night in hiding, set off for the Ugandan border with his younger brother, Seme, 14.
Their mother, Mrs. Ijo, feeling unwell, had checked herself into a hospital that morning. The boys knew that to try to find her would be too dangerous.
The two brothers are among 17,600 minors who have crossed the border into Uganda without their parents since the outbreak of South Sudan’s civil war in 2013, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Over the last year, the pace of the conflict and the flow of refugees have slowed, but aid workers say it will take years to reunite splintered families.
“When it’s already tough just to survive, and you don’t even know if your loved ones are alive, that adds a lot to the burden,” said Joane Holliger, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross to a program in Uganda, Restoring Family Links. “There are a lot of protection concerns for unaccompanied children — child labor, teenage pregnancy, prostitution, child-headed families — so the quicker we can trace their parents, the better.”
Over the last two years, 433 unaccompanied minors have been reunited with their parents in Uganda. Worldwide, the International Committee of the Red Cross is working to trace the parents of 99,342 minors.
In Uganda, the bulk of the work is done by Red Cross volunteers, called tracers, who work weekdays hoping to find missing family members in their allocated section of the camp.
Agustin Soroba, 27, who was himself separated from his family for five months after being kidnapped, beaten and pressed into labor as an ammunition porter by South Sudanese soldiers, has been working as a tracer since February 2017.
His area of operation is a series of blocks in Bidi Bidi camp — now Africa’s largest with around 280,000 refugees. On a recent Wednesday, he was doing the rounds of unaccompanied children in his area whose cases were still in progress, and checking on families who had been reunified.
One visit was to a small mud-built home where Margaret Sitima, 18, has been waiting for over a year to reconnect with her mother, last seen on her way to the hospital in the Ugandan town of Arua, after being badly beaten by soldiers on her journey out of South Sudan.
Mr. Soroba pressed her for any more details she might have, and told her he would try his best.
His colleagues urge people to report missing family members. They also hang posters of the missing and run a hotline that allows refugees to phone separated family members.
One old man called his wife — the first time they had spoken in 14 months — to let her know that he was in Bidi Bidi and that he missed her. A woman in a yellow T-shirt called relatives in South Sudan with the news that her son had been sick but was recovering.