Brazzaville — Five-year-old Vianey hasn't seen his parents since a series of explosions ripped through an ammunition dump in Brazzaville on Mar. 4. A stranger, Jules Bomboko, said he found Vianey days later, wandering around the Tréchot neighbourhood, a few hundred metres from the site of the blasts.
"I'm hungry," said the child, as though with his last breath.
The explosion at an ammunition store in the Congolese capital killed more than 200 people, injured over 1,500 and left thousands more homeless. Already-inadequate medical and social welfare systems are struggling to deal with the aftermath of the accident, with children amongst the most vulnerable.
Gervais Bouity, in charge of a shelter that was set up at the city's cathedral, said when Vianey was brought there, he was tired and very dirty, his clothes in tatters.
Twelve-year-old Lucie, who suffered injuries to her skull and right arm, was brought to the Albert Leyono Municipal Clinic on Mar. 5. "When the explosion happened, we all ran," she said. "I don't know what became of my parents and my two brothers."
About fifty survivors of the blast are being cared for at the clinic. One of them, Julien Amona Ngari, told IPS, "Lucie is still traumatised. She needs time to recover. She has nightmares after everything she has seen."
Across the city, there are dozens of other children in situations similar to those of Vianey and Lucie. One shelter, the Moungali nursery school, had 33 lost children at one point - eleven were still there at the end of the week. At another nursery in the Makélékélé neighbourhood, four of the seven children who were brought in had been reunited with their parents, according to officials.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its Congolese counterpart have put up noticeboards with information about lost children in front of the shelters. "At this point, 20 children taken in by our teams are waiting for their parents to come for them," said Anne-Céline Moiraud, responsible for child protection at the ICRC.
"We encourage anyone who has found a child separated from their family to get in touch with our volunteers at these sites," she said.
The various United Nations agencies have received about a hundred inquiries from parents who have lost touch with their children.
"Since that day (Mar. 4), I haven't seen either of my two kids. I have been to visit all of the sites, but I've found nothing," said one mother, near tears.
According to hospital records, children made up roughly a third of those treated for injuries - 338 of the 866 people who received medical care at the Makélékélé and Bacongo hospitals, and at Brazzaville's University Hospital.
The quality of care available to these children since the disaster has been mixed. "My son, who was wounded on the head, hasn't received any care," complained Nicole Ibondo, mother of an eight-year- old boy.
"We are doing what we can with our own means, because we have still not gotten any assistance," said Suzanne Maleka, director of the Makélékélé nursery. "The children who we're hosting are showing numerous signs of illness like malaria or malnutrition."
At the cathedral, where around 5,000 people affected by the disaster - including 120 unaccompanied children - have been sleeping in the open air, a team from the local non-governmental organisation Médecins d'Afrique (MDA) fears there are already cases of malnutrition.
"We're seeing children who are beginning to have problems with malnutrition. But we lack medicine and other things to properly respond," MDA coordinator Sara Pillar told IPS. She said that of the 200 health check-ups that the organisation's staff carry out each day, a third involve children.
At certain shelters, such as at the Albert Leyono Clinic and the Marchand Stadium, children are being fed bread and sardines. "They will leave here suffering haemorrhoids," said a Congolese Red Cross staffer.
Thanks to support from international organisations, centres specifically caring for children are now being set up. The United Nations Children's Fund has also sent teams to the sites and to health centres to help children deal with their traumatic experience.
"When they got here, some of the children didn't speak. Since we've been working with them, there has been a slight improvement," said Martial Lounoungou, a specialist in childhood trauma.
Also affected, if less immediately, are nearly 20,000 schoolchildren - and 470 preschool-aged children - according to UNICEF. Their schools were destroyed by the explosions, and around 6,000 desks will be needed to accommodate them temporarily in other schools.
Students who are preparing for final exams will be placed in schools that were unaffected, with the authorities committing to paying for transport so they can continue their studies.
The government has also decided to allocate a grant of roughly 6,000 dollars to each family affected by the disaster.