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Red letter day

Having been separated by conflict when he was just 16, Jean reflects on the experience of receiving a letter from his mother and brother after 15 years.

When Jean moved from a refugee camp in Tanzania to Australia in 2007, he left with the certainty that his father and mother had been killed years earlier and his little brother was missing.

Jean's mother also lived with the same certainty: that Jean had been killed during the Burundi Civil War. Jean and his mum had no way of knowing that the other was alive, let alone Jean's youngest brother too.

The civil war in Burundi tore Jean's family apart, killing Jean's father. The armed conflict lasted from 1993 to 2005 and those who survived fled in different directions.

"I walked from Burundi to Tanzania for more than two weeks," says Jean. He was 16 years old. "Sometimes I was alone, sometimes I met other people who were afraid, because on our way to Tanzania we met rebels and then we had to survive that."

Life as a refugee

Jean arrived at a Tanzanian refugee camp of 50,000 people in 1996. There, he lived for ten years, surviving by gathering food and wood from the forest, going to the school in the camp and eventually getting a job working with young people as an adolescent outreach officer. During this time Jean also met and married his wife, Florence.

Living in the camp was very challenging and Jean didn't feel safe. "Some of the people who killed my father were living in the camp," he says. In 2006, Jean, Florence and their child were repatriated to Australia.

Tracing family with Red Cross

Jean took with him memories of his family and set about trying to find the remaining members. His search led him to the Red Cross and he sent a message asking for help to find his mother.

Jean wrote a letter to his mother, and while he was waiting for a reply, Jean miraculously received a letter from Red Cross in Uganda from his youngest brother, who he had not heard from in 15 years.

"When I received his letter I was very, very excited. I even cried to see his photo," Jean says of his now 16-year-old brother, who was a one-year-old baby when Jean had last seen him. Through letters and phone calls, Jean pieced together his brother's harrowing story. Friends of the family found the boy in 1996 and took him to Tanzania, but they were killed trying to return to Burundi. Jean's brother fled to Uganda, where he lives now.

"He says that life is very tough - sometimes he feels hunger because there is not enough food - but he is in peace. He says, 'Now I sleep well without thinking that I will get killed,'" explains Jean.

Then Jean received some more astonishing news: that his mother was also alive and she had responded to his letter. "Finally the letter from my mum! I cried and cried," says Jean, who is now able to keep in touch with her. "I told her that our little brother is living in Uganda and that I found him. She said 'I can't cry, I can't laugh.' She was very surprised to hear the little one is alive also."

Jean has chosen to share his story to help inform others about the Red Cross Tracing service.

"I read different stories on the Red Cross website saying that many people who had been missing their families had come into contact in 5, 10, 20 years," says Jean. "I think that through my story other people who have members of their family missing can read it and be encouraged to try and find them."

"My hope one day is to see my brother and my mother again," says Jean.

Photos: Australian Red Cross.

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