Queueing all day for a three-minute call: reuniting families torn apart by Boko Haram
For Nigerians displaced from Lake Chad by the Islamist insurgents, a weekly conversation on a borrowed phone is the best chance of finding missing relatives
Hawa Adamu Bello was pregnant with her son Mohammed when she fled her home in Nigeria to escape an attack by Boko Haram.
Hawa Adamu Bello yells excitedly into the basic mobile phone that has just been handed to her. She is through to her sister-in-law. The women haven’t seen each other since Boko Haram militants attacked their town on the Nigerian shores of Lake Chad more than two years ago.
“Alhamdulillah. Alhamdulillah,” she says, giving the Muslim answer to all the questions about how she is, how things are, how her husband is, as quickly as possible, balancing the need for speed with the risk of being unforgivably rude.
Her call is being timed, and she has three minutes.
By the time she has finished all the necessary greetings, there is hardly time for the key question – the one she has been trying to find an answer to since she fled her home in Doron Baga, running as fast as possible to the lakeshore to escape Boko Haram bullets: “Where are my sons?”
That January day in 2015, when Boko Haram carried out the deadliest attack in its history – killing about 2,000 people – her boys, Bala and Idrissa, had been out playing with their friends. They weren’t on any of the canoes that made it across the lake. Did the gunmen kill them or kidnap them? Were they trapped in one of the 3,100 houses that were set ablaze?
Boko Haram’s deadly attacks on villages have scattered more than 2 million people across four countries: Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Children, parents, husbands and wives are missing, and prevented from finding one another by a conflict that rumbles on. Amnesty International reported this month that killings by the terror group had doubled – to 381 – in the five months since April in Nigeria and Cameroon.
Boko Haram has been trying to create an Islamic state in north-east Nigeria since 2009. It has killed tens of thousands of civilians, raped and kidnapped thousands more, and forced millions to flee their homes.
In August, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, returned from prolonged medical leave in London with a promise to renew the fight against the group that has made the region a living hell. But it was not the first such vow that Buhari, or his counterparts in the region, have made.
Bello, her husband and younger children made it to Chad but fled with nothing. All their possessions have come from the UN: a collection of broken plastic buckets and tin pots, a couple of mats, two torn mosquito nets, some tarpaulins and a shovel. With Bello’s husband earning £2-£5 a week when he could get work, and their nine-year-old son earning 10p a day collecting firewood, there was no way the family could afford a phone, let alone international calls to find out what had become of their sons.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has started a service in the camp to help reconnect families, allowing each resident of Dar es Salaam camp in western Chad one three-minute call every week. Now, every Thursday, refugees arrive to secure a place in the queue, waiting all morning for their turn to make a call and often, because of network problems, not getting through at all.
But Bello had lost all her phone numbers in the attack.
Since the 2015 ambush, the fertile islands in the receding lake have become a hideout and a source of food for the faction of Boko Haram led by Mamman Nur. They have slaughtered and driven out fishing, herding and farming communities.
Across the region, 11 million people need humanitarian aid, but the UN says it has only managed to raise 43% of the $1bn needed to stem the crisis this year.
Families, separated when they fled, have no idea who among their loved ones are alive.
After a year in the Chadian camp, finally a scrap of news came. Women whom Bello knew from the town arrived at the camp, looking for their husbands and children.
“One said to me, ‘I saw Idrissa in Maiduguri’,” Bello says. The city, Boko Haram’s birthplace, is 200km from their town. She has no idea how her son, now 13, could have made it so far, but the woman said he had gone to find his grandmother.
“After that, I’ve had no news of him, but I’m sure he got there. He knows very well where his grandmother lives,” Bello says, hugging two-year-old Mohammed to her. “I think so much about us coming together again. That’s what I ask God for.”
But about Bala, her 15-year-old, there is still no news. “I think about Bala all the time,” she says. “I think about a lot of things – that they’ve killed him, or maybe he’s run into the bush and died alone.”
She speaks to anyone she can find from Doron Baga, trying to reconstruct the day she fled. But nobody stayed behind to count the dead, the survivors, or the militants – and with reason.
“If you meet [Boko Haram], you’re dead. You can’t stop to count how many of them there are,” says Aba Ali Mbatouo, area chief of nearby Kiskera, sitting on the veranda of his earthen home wearing a pale blue boubou.
Since 2015, a stream of people have arrived in Chad from the islands, he says, as Boko Haram, under pressure from the Nigerian army, kept pushing further into the lake. But the Chad mainland where the island people fled is much drier than their own land. Struggling to survive, with their cattle dying of hunger, some are risking death to go back, even as fellow islanders continue to flee.
“They keep coming. We don’t know their exact number, but they are many,” Mbatouo says.
Whenever new people arrive, Bello makes inquiries, trying to find friends of friends to get news or phone numbers. In June, she finally got a number for her sister-in-law, who had ended up in a camp in Niger. Before she dialled, she passed the piece of paper with the number written on it to one of her children to take home for safekeeping.
“Have you heard anything of Bala?” she manages to ask, when the greetings are out the way. After two years of not hearing anything, her sister-in-law passes on a rumour of news. Someone has seen Bala in Niger. He was on his way back to Nigeria.
Bello hangs up when her three minutes are up, visibly happier. “It’s put my mind at rest,” she says.
She goes back to her compound, and asks the child for her precious scrap of paper with the number on it. But he has lost it.
Ena mwa osakhulupirira adampempha Mneneri (S.A.W.) kuti awauze za Mulungu m'mene alili; kodi ndi wa Golide kapena wa siliva? Ndipo sura imeneyi idavumbulutsidwa poyankha funso lawo ndi kumuyeretsa Mulungu kumachitidwe a "SHIRIKI" 2 (kumphatikiza Mulungu ndi zinthu zina).
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