Families torn apart by Boko Haram hope a three-minute call brings news
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 side of Lake Chad more than two years ago.
“Alhamdulillah. Alhamdulillah,” she says, giving the Muslim answer to all the questions about how she and her husband are, as quickly as possible, balancing the need for speed with the risk of being rude.
Her call is being timed, and she has three minutes.
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 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 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 have scattered more than 2 million people across four countries: Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Children, parents, husbands and wives are missing, prevented from finding one another by a conflict that rumbles on. Amnesty International reported last 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.
Bello, her husband and younger children made it to Chad but fled with nothing. All their possessions – a collection of broken buckets and pots, a couple of mats, two torn mosquito nets, some tarpaulins and a shovel – came from the UN. With Bello’s husband earning between $2.50 and $6.50 a week when he could get work, and their nine-year-old son earning pennies 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 that gives each resident of the Dar es Salaam camp in western Chad one three-minute call each week. Every Thursday, refugees arrive to secure a place in the queue, wait all morning for their turn to make a call and often, because of network problems, don’t get through at all.
Since the ambush in 2015, the fertile islands in the receding lake have become a hideout and a source of food for one faction of Boko Haram. 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 this year.
After Bello spent a year in the Chadian camp, finally a scrap of news came. Women she 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-yearold, there is still no news.
Since 2015, a stream of people have arrived in Chad from the islands 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.
Whenever more 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 on it to one of her children to take home for safekeeping.
“Have you heard anything of Bala?” she asks, when the greetings are out the way. Someone has seen Bala in Niger, her sister-in-law replies. He was on his way back to Nigeria. Her three minutes up, Bella hangs 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.
‘I think so much about us coming together again’ … Hawa Adamu Bello, a refugee, has lost contact with both her teenage sons