Eleven-year-old Protegee carried her sobbing niece on her back as they searched for relatives in a sea of people in eastern Congo. The photograph of Protegee -- using her T-shirt to wipe the tears from her face as 3-year-old Reponse wailed -- prompted hundreds of e-mails from people worldwide hoping to help them.
When I first photographed Protegee on Nov. 6 in a crowd of thousands in Kiwanja, she told me only her first name and that she was looking for her mother. I learned later that she and Reponse had wandered alone for three days after being separated from Protegee's mother on Nov. 3 as the family fled on foot from their village of Kiseguru, about 12 miles away.
Protegee had spent a night sleeping in a church, huddled with Reponse under a flimsy scarf. "I had no food or water," she said, speaking in the Kiswahili language.
When I set out to search for Protegee, I knew that the chances of finding them were slim, as I see children walking alone on the roads every day. Armed with their photograph, I started asking around Kiwanja. Women frowned -- they did not know the girls. I traveled to the school yard, to the clinic. No luck.
As I was about to head back to Goma, I stopped near a U.N. base. I ventured inside a white UNHCR tent there. There, Maria Mukeshimani's eyes lighted up at the sight of the photo. She had seen these children in that very tent five days earlier. And she knew Protegee's mother: Her name is Esperance Nirakagori.
Esperance -- the French word for hope.
Esperance had taken refuge at the local Catholic church. When I found her, she smiled at the sight of the girls. Then, to my surprise, she said they had already found her, but she had sent them back to their village, alone and on foot. She feared for their safety in Kiwanja and believed they would be more secure in the care of her older daughter; she was too weak to make the journey herself.
She kept staring at the photo. Only when I told her I would return the next morning and drive her to rejoin the girls in Kiseguru did she smile.
Esperance was quiet as we drove, clutching the girls' photo.
The reunion with Protegee and Reponse, in a small mud hut, was brief. They smiled at each other. No one spoke. I prompted Protegee, a shy girl who was only 2 months old when her father was killed in Congo's last bloody war.
"Are you happy to see your mother?" I asked.
She answered, in a soft voice: "Yes."
Protegee told how she had arrived exhausted in Kiseguru on Nov. 12. But when she did, she found her family's hut empty -- her sister and other relatives had already fled toward Uganda. For five days she waited for an adult to come for her. No one did. She was planning to set off for Kiwanja that very day to rejoin her mother, when I arrived instead.
Rather than remain in their village, Esperance asked me to take them all back to Kiwanja.
Fleeing the Mai Mai
In the streets of Kiseguru, we had seen 20 men wearing civilian clothes and toting Kalashnikovs. When I asked her who they were, her answer was swift and certain: "Mai Mai."
Earlier this month, Kiwanja residents were terrorized by the pro-government Mai Mai militia, which the U.N. said killed people accused of supporting the rebels. Then the rebels won control and killed those they claimed had supported the militiamen. And now the Mai Mai were in her family's village.
Protegee, Reponse and Esperance are back in Kiwanja now. They have set up a cot in the corner of a room on the Catholic church grounds. Outside, the U.N. World Food Program is distributing food, but the situation in the town remains volatile.
Before I left, I gave Esperance the photograph of her daughter and granddaughter. She handed it to Protegee, who, with Reponse in her lap, gazed at the image. I left them there on their cot, clutching the photo, one of their few possessions.
Asked when they would return to their village, Esperance replied: "When the war is over."