Fam­i­lies torn apart by Boko Haram hope a three-minute call brings news

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Chad di­ary Ruth Ma­clean

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.

Lorenzo Meloni/Mag­num

‘I think so much about us coming to­gether again’ … Hawa Adamu Bello, a refugee, has lost con­tact with both her teenage sons

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