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When staff writer Nadya Labi and photographer Anthony Suau arrived at a transit center for refugees in Conakry, Guinea to report on children separated from their parents by the decade-long West African turmoil, they were welcomed with an unusual performance. The camp’s children acted out the experiences that brought them there: how they witnessed the murder of a parent, how they were dragged into the army, how they were raped, how they ultimately found their way into the hands of international aid agencies. “It was difficult to watch,” says Suau, who is based in Paris. “It’s hard to imagine that we live under the same sky.”

Labi and Suau are no strangers to African skies. Labi, whose father is from Sierra Leone, has visited West Africa frequently. Suau, whose first assignment in Africa was to cover the Ethiopian famine in 1984, has also photographed such man-made disasters as Angola, Eritrea and Rwanda. Their challenge this time was to witness a reunion between a mother and a child. “Because of the tensions along the border between Guinea and Sierra Leone, refugees have been moving from one camp to another,” says Labi. “No one has a fixed abode, and it is difficult to follow a single narrative, let alone two — mother and child.”

With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Labi and Suau accompanied two teenaged sisters on a half-hour flight from Conakry to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where they would meet their mother for the first time in three years. “When I see her, I am going to start dancing,” said the younger girl, who is 16. But once the plane landed, she ran — followed closely by her 18-year-old sister, with Suau and Labi trying to keep up — straight into her mother’s waiting arms. Says Suau, “For a full minute, they were so buried into one another you could see no faces.” Adds Labi, “It was incredibly moving, and worth all the delays and frustrations.”

Throughout that day in Conakry the children, one after another, handed Suau notes they had written. The messages were usually similar: “Will you be my father?” Suau was not sure how to respond. Readers are likely to have the same reaction to this evocative story. That’s why assistant managing editor Joshua Ramo, who conceived and supervised the project, has included in it a page on how to help the separated children of West Africa. Please consider making a donation.

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