* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad region comes down to these statistics: thousands dead, two million displaced, hundreds abducted, and hundreds of thousands forced to flee to save their lives, often losing contact with their families.
The ICRC works to restore family links by locating people and putting them back in touch with their missing relatives. These are stories of two brothers, a mother and son, and a young girl, who were successfully reunited with their relatives after enduring months of separation due to the conflict in north-east Nigeria.
Brothers repatriated from Cameroon
In April 2014, Ahmed and Yussuf Chiroma, brothers aged 12 and 11 years old, respectively, were enrolled in a school in Kousseri, Cameroon, when the armed violence reached Kumshe, their hometown in north-east Nigeria. They found out that their parents had fled and, since then, they have lost contact with them.
“We returned to Nigeria in August. Without news from our parents, we could not find a way to reach our grandmother, Maryam, who lives in Maiduguri,” says Yussuf.
“When we reached the border, we were brought to a transitory IDP camp in Mubi,” Yussuf says with the maturity of a man more than twice his age.
Once in Mubi, Ahmed and Yussuf found their older brothers, Bakura and Foke, aged 18 and 15, respectively, who were repatriated from Cameroon.
However, the younger brothers were later transferred to an IDP camp in Yola in Adamawa State, while the older ones were brought to Maiduguri in Borno State.
“We lost contact with them. We stayed in Yola for four months with other unaccompanied children and received three square meals a day. But Ahmed and I were missing our family and we just wanted to go to our grandmother’s house,” Yussuf recalls.
A son looks for his mother
Ibrahim Mustapha, 17, was sent by his mother three years ago to a school in the town of Maroua, Cameroon. While he was away, he would frequently talk to his mother on the phone.
In mid-August, Ibrahim was repatriated to Nigeria. During the journey, he lost his phone and all contact with his mother.
“We were taken to Mubi where we stayed for a few days before we were transferred to an IDP camp in Yola. It was difficult for me because I did not have money to buy food or water, and I could not call my mother. I thought I would never see my family again,” Ibrahim says.
Ibrahim’s mother, Hafsat Mohammed, a 30-year-old housewife from Maiduguri was in an advanced stage of pregnancy when Ibrahim went missing. Due to the stress of not knowing where Ibrahim, her first-born child was, she delivered her baby some weeks before the due date.
“I was really sad, but I kept praying for Ibrahim all these months, hoping that he would call me one day to tell me that he was alive and was coming home to meet his new brother,” says Hafsat.
A young girl searches for her family
The armed conflict was particularly hard for Halima Hauwa, 15. The young girl had to live with other IDPs in the bush for one year after her village was attacked three years ago.
“The living conditions were so hard. We barely had food, water and a shelter for the heavy rainy season. Then, we moved to a village on the border with Cameroon. We stayed there for another year, but in January, we were attacked again and so we had to flee to Cameroon,” says Halima.
In Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon, Halima was able to send a message to her aunt, Aisha Baha, in Maiduguri through the Red Cross. After a few days, she received a picture and a letter from Aisha.
“I could not believe that they had found my aunt in Maiduguri. But it was even more amazing when I was told that they were going to take me to my aunt. I was so excited and literally jumped for joy,” recalls Halima, smiling.
In Maiduguri, Halima’s aunt started crying when a Red Cross team brought her a letter from her niece.
“I have not heard from Halima for more than three years and we are still looking for her parents. I have felt bad all these years without news from Halima and honestly I had lost hope of finding her alive,” says Aisha.
On the other side of the border, Halima was taking an ICRC plane to finally be reunited with her aunt.
“I was anxious during the flight but I finally found peace of mind. I thought I would never be back in Maiduguri with my aunt, uncle and cousins. When we landed and I saw Aisha, I could not believe my eyes. I ran fast to meet her and I could not hold back the tears,” says Halima.
“I cannot say how happy we are having Halima at home and finally leaving that suffering behind. My family will never forget this miracle. When my husband came back from work and saw my niece, he just said 'we were waiting for you to have dinner',” shares Aisha.
Restoring contact and hope
In the IDP camp in Yola, a team from the ICRC and the Nigerian Red Cross found the Chiroma brothers and Ibrahim. The children gave them enough information to start searching for their loved ones.
ICRC visited Hafsat in Maiduguri to confirm if Ibrahim was her son.
“I cannot say how relieved I felt when I saw Ibrahim’s picture,” says Hafsat. “He was alive and after all these months of anxiety, I finally knew his whereabouts.”
Ibrahim, who was staying at the IDP camp in Yola, where he met brothers Ahmed and Yussuf, saw how the ICRC was helping all the unaccompanied children to find their families.
“When the Red Cross showed me a picture of my mum and my newborn brother, I started feeling at home," recalls Ibrahim.
For the Chiroma brothers, a displaced person who was also staying in Yola, told them that he had their grandmother’s phone number and that the ICRC could help them to find her.
“The ICRC came back to us a few days after with a picture of our grandmother. My brother and I were extremely happy when we knew that we had to get ready to leave the IDP camp and go home,” says Yussuf.
With the good news delivered, Ibrahim and the Chiroma Brothers boarded an ICRC flight that would take them from Yola to Maiduguri.
“I spent the flight looking at the picture of my grandmother with my brother Ahmed,” says Yussuf, who could not stop smiling.
“It was my first time on a plane, but I was even more excited by the idea of going home and meeting my mum and brothers,” says Ibrahim.
The plane landed. All the children got off and rushed to meet their families who had been waiting for them on the tarmac.
“When I saw Ibrahim, I just wanted to carry him on my back like when he was a child. I do not have enough words to thank the Red Cross for helping me to find my son,” says Hafsat.
For Maryam, the Chiroma brothers’ grandmother, finding the boys was nothing short of a miracle.
“I am still suffering from the lack of news about my son, their father, but now I only have tears of joy because the children are back home,” says Maryam.
Only time will tell how all the suffering and the lost years without their loved ones will impact on the lives of people separated by the armed conflict. The hope is that after reuniting with their families, they have also regained their hopes and dreams for their lives.
“When I grow up, I want to join the ICRC to help other children to find their families,” says Yussuf with his constant smile.
The armed conflict in Nigeria has inflicted physical and psychological scars difficult to forget to the population, but Ibrahim, his mother Hafsat, the Chiroma brothers, their grandmother Maryam, Halima and her family will always carry with them the moment of their reunion. An indelible memory that will mark their lives forever.
The names of the persons in this report have been changed to protect their identities.