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Hope in the darkness

Emmanuel spent 18 years searching for his family, unsure if they were alive or dead.

Emmanuel, whose parents and four siblings were killed in conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been searching for his remaining family for 18 years.

Emmanuel lost his family in the most unimaginable of horrors, and since that day he has lived with the constant ache of loneliness. Emmanuel was a teenage school boy living in the conflict-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo when he witnessed rebels kill his father, mother, brother and three sisters-just metres from where he lay.

In that instant his life changed forever. "I grew up in a hardworking family, loving and caring family. But 1996 is when everything erupted, and it was that moment where my life changed dramatically."

Words can barely describe what must have been almost unbearable suffering. "I was only 14 years of age when my family members were killed, when I witnessed that mass killing. After losing my family I had no one left; I was just like a lonely person," says Emmanuel, now 32 years old. "You can have everything, but if you have no one to share it with, it's worthless."

But there was one tiny hope, which Emmanuel clung tightly to for the next 18 years. And with the help of Red Cross' Tracing team, this tiny hope became a reality.

"My hope was for my uncle. For those that I saw being killed, I was sure that those ones are dead, but for him, I had no evidence if he was dead or alive."

Emmanuel's own life was saved that day by a neighbour who stopped him rushing back home. Together they fled, eventually crossing into Tanzania and ending up in a refugee camp. Such camps would become Emmanuel's home for the next nine years: perilous places to live when you are young and alone.

"Life in those camps was no good. If you get sick in that kind of environment, something curable can actually take your life if you don't have somebody to take care of you. Also tensions were growing between the refugees ... fighting … or mass killings in those camps was my other fear. [But] I knew there was no option; I know there was no possible way I could be going back.

"I did high school in the refugee camps and was thinking that, if I finish my high school, I can get a job. Then at least I can be able to marry and have children and then create a new family."

Building a new life

In 2005, Emmanuel was granted a humanitarian visa and resettled in Australia. Piece by piece he has slowly built himself a new life here: studying, working and recently setting up a non-profit counselling association to help other new migrants cope with the trauma they have suffered. And through all those years, he held on tight to the hope that his uncle, aunty and their children-his cousins-who lived in another part of his hometown, had somehow survived.

He never gave up looking, searching records in the refugee camps and asking people he met from his old neighbourhood, but no one had any answers. "I didn't stop, I never stopped. My belief was if I never saw him dying - I never heard anyone saying 'we saw him dying' - there was a 50-50 possibility that they could still be alive."

Then in 2014, Emmanuel learnt that Red Cross in Australia could help in his search. "That was the last hope. (Red Cross) are the only people who can help me: everyone I was asking was saying they have no idea."

A Red Cross caseworker, part of the organisation's International Tracing Service, collected the information Emmanuel had, including drawings of his village and where he last saw his uncle, and then contacted Red Cross colleagues in Kinshasa, Congo's capital.

"Red Cross reaches where we can't reach, doing whatever they possibly can to help us.

Eight months later, out of the blue, came a message that would end that 18-year search. The message was from his aunt - the family were all alive and living in the DRC.

"I couldn't even believe it was true. I was shaken, I was excited, I was confused," he says. "Even when I spoke to him (my uncle), his wife told me that he still doesn't believe if it's me because the way I fled the country, my age at the time and the journey - they all thought that I could have died."

Emmanuel says finding his uncle and his family has been life changing and he is a new person. "It's like I'm born again. I'm so happy."

Red Cross' ability to reconnect separated families is amazing, he says. "(Red Cross) reaches where we can't reach, doing whatever (they) possibly can to help us. I wouldn't imagine any other organisation that could have helped me find him."

Emmanuel now has family, and that is a truly precious thing.

He says he has people to turn to for support, advice and love. "They are my relatives; they know how they can guide me in the right direction. I have a plan to travel to Africa to go see them, sit with them, share with them, and feel like I'm surrounded by a family again.

"I really say, from my heart, that Red Cross has changed my life."

The Tracing Service

Red Cross' Tracing Service helps reduce the suffering of families all over the world that have been separated by war, conflict, disaster or migration. Tracing is a free service, set up to help people find lost loved ones, re-establish contact, exchange family news and clarify the fate of the missing.

Learn more about the Tracing Service »

The global network of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in 189 countries means it's in a unique position to locate missing people. Red Cross' principles of neutrality and impartiality help ensure it has access to people in the most difficult of circumstances-in conflict zones, disaster zones, refugee camps and places of detention.

Red Cross in Australia began its international tracing service 100 years ago in 1915, opening bureaux to track wounded and missing people during the First World War.

Red Cross depends on the support of the public to continue its work. You can support Red Cross as it reconnects families, like Emmanuel's, by making a donation online or by phoning 1800 811 700.

Photo: Sarah Landro/Australian Red Cross

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