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Niger/Nigeria: The immeasurable joy of finding relatives believed missing


In Niger, where tens of thousands of displaced persons have taken refuge, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Nigerian Red Cross are endeavouring to help people who have fled the violence and the fighting in Nigeria to regain contact with their loved ones. The story of Maïmouna and her family is just one of dozens about families who have been scattered by the conflict and anxiously wait for news, hoping to be reunited with their loved ones.

Since May 2013, north-eastern Nigeria has been caught up in a spiral of violence. Nigerian armed forces and armed groups have been engaged in a conflict that has affected hundreds of thousands of civilians – both in Nigeria and in the neighbouring countries of Niger, Cameroon or Chad. Civilians who are trapped by the fighting and are sometimes its direct target have no other choice than to flee for their lives. In the chaos of flight, people very often become separated from their families. Some disappear, while others end up at different sites for displaced persons. Many of them have no means of getting back in touch with their relatives.
On 24 November 2014, members of an armed group attacked the town of Damassak in Yobé, one of the three states in north-eastern Nigeria affected by the conflict. That same day, thousands of civilians fled the town in search of shelter in the region of Diffa, in the Republic of Niger. Twelve-year-old Maïmouna managed to reach the town of Diffa, more than 27 km from Damassak. Red Cross volunteers were alerted by the family that took her in and visited them to carry out the customary registration. The information gathered and the girl’s photo enabled them to quickly begin trying to trace her family.

It took three weeks of hard work before the Red Cross volunteers and the ICRC finally located her mother in Gagamari, a refugee site 25 km away that had taken in most of the displaced persons from Damassak. As soon as she saw her little girl, Maïmouna, in the photo, the mother burst into tears of deep emotion and relief. She immediately explained that she also had no news of her two other daughters or her husband. Another tracing request was then opened. When the team went back to see little Maïmouna the next morning, a pleasant surprise was in store: Hadiza, aged 18, and Haoua, aged 16, had joined their younger sister and her host family, after spending days wandering around looking for their parents.

Then came another piece of good news: Mohamed, Maïmouna’s father, had reached the refugee site where his wife had found shelter. The joy of their reunion was even greater when they learned that their three daughters were all safe and sound. Despite his weariness, impatience to see his daughters again was written all over Mohamed’s face. “I had gone to work in the fields when the fighting broke out in Damassak,” he said. “When I returned, I was trapped in Damassak and wasn’t able to get out before now,” the girls’ father continued, explaining how distraught he had been not to have any news of his wife and daughters for so long. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” he concluded with tears in his eyes.

The next day, the ICRC made travel arrangements for Mohamed and two other families whose children had also been traced. A family visit had to take place before the family members could be reunited. On the way, the parents’ laughter was interspersed with apprehension and questions about the families’ future. Their arrival at the home of the children’s host family was charged with emotion: the three girls flung themselves into their father’s arms. Cries of joy resounded throughout the house. In the turmoil of cries and expressions of gratitude, one voice – Hadiza’s – rang out; between sobs, she kept repeating, “What would have become of us it something had happened to you, Daddy?” Little Maïmouna seemed reluctant to leave the solace of her father’s lap and the warmth of his arms. After a day spent enjoying each other’s company, the parents were accompanied back to the refugee site; wisely, it was decided to leave the children with their guardians for the time being until the families had found suitable accommodation. For Hassane Adam Alamey, a volunteer in the regional section of the Red Cross Society of Niger in Diffa who is in charge of the work to restore family links, “the joy of the reunions and the happiness of the reunited families more than make up for all the weeks of hard work; it’s a very special time.”

The three reunited sisters together with Red Cross volunteers.
© Red Cross Society of Niger, Hassane Adam Alamey

Altogether, registration was completed and tracing services launched for no fewer than some 40 children who had been separated from their families or who were left unaccompanied following the attack in Damassak. Thanks to the work of the Red Cross restoring family links network, eight of those children have since been reunited with their parents. In addition, other families have been able to get back together as a result of their own efforts. The problem of family separation in situations of armed conflict will nonetheless continue to drive Red Cross activities in the Diffa region. Together with the Red Cross Society of Niger, the ICRC has set up a national restoring family links network and is providing technical and material support for the volunteers running the network.

Women shed tears of joy at occasion of the three sisters reunification.
© Red Cross Society of Niger, Hassane Adam Alamey

The ICRC is present in Niger and through its sub-delegation in Diffa and its collaboration with the Red Cross Society of Niger, it is making every effort to meet the needs of people affected by the violence that is disrupting life in north-eastern Nigeria. In 2014, some 45,000 people (local inhabitants, refugees and people who had returned home) benefited from emergency food aid in the Diffa region, while just under 11,000 of them were also supplied with basic household items.

A Red Cross volunteer shows Maïmouna’s mother photos of her three daughters reunited in Diffa.
© ICRC, Lompo Mamoudou 

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