Alhaji Bukar Ali hadn’t seen his family in close to a decade due to armed conflict. Then, a team of Red Cross volunteers in Cameroon and Nigeria helped not just to find his relatives but to reunite them.
This is the story of a homecoming.
Under hot sun and blue sky, on the airport tarmac of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria, Alhaji Bukar Ali was reunited with his family after nine years of separation.
“I feel so happy – I’m just smiling continuously,” Alhaji tells us. Just moments after his plane landed, he had been able to embrace his surviving brother, sister and aunt for the first time since armed conflict had torn them apart.
Communities in northeast Nigeria have now endured the impact of armed clashes for more than a decade. Nine years ago, Alhaji had been attending a religious school in the small town of Banki when it was attacked.
“When fighting reached my town, we joined many people to flee,” Alhaji says. “I found myself in neighbouring Cameroon, taken in by a local leader.”
Alhaji was just seven years old at the time. Now 16, the journey from separation to reunion would be a long one.
At first, in Cameroon, Alhaji had been together with two of his brothers, who had fled with him across the border. But it wasn’t long before events saw him separated from them as well.
Over nine years alone in Cameroon, Alhaji would go to school and work small jobs while living in a camp for people displaced by the conflict in Nigeria.
It wasn’t until an International Committee of the Red Cross team in Cameroon noticed he was without family, and took on the case to try and find them, that things started to change.
That team sent the details of Alhaji’s situation to their counterparts in Nigeria, so that the search for his family could begin.
“It took a long time,” says Lilian Dube from the ICRC team in Maiduguri. “You can imagine the information we received – there wasn’t much because Alhaji was still a very young boy when he was separated.”
Remembering names of people and places can help trace missing family members. But Alhaji had been too young to remember.
It was only when the ICRC and Nigerian Red Cross used photo tracing techniques that someone recognised Alhaji and helped make the connection to another of his brothers, Modu Bongomi – living just outside Maiduguri.
After that link was made, Red Cross teams were able to help Alhaji speak to Modu five times over the phone from Cameroon, while planning was underway to reunite them in Nigeria.
From those calls, Alhaji learned his parents had passed. Earlier, he had written a message to his mother and given it to the Red Cross volunteers in case they found her. Now, he knew it would never be delivered.
But alongside that tragic news came the anticipation of being able to re-join his remaining family in Nigeria.
After years of waiting and many hours of hard work from the efforts of many, that moment finally arrived as the plane Alhaji was on landed in Maiduguri.
“It was a very emotional moment, very beautiful – the family was very grateful, very happy to have him back,” says Lilian from the ICRC team.
“It was a lot of people all working together to make sure we could bring him home.”
As Alhaji’s brother, Modu, describes the moment: “I feel like it is our late father coming home.”
Alhaji’s story is unique but he’s not alone. Around 24,000 people are registered as missing due to the conflict in northeast Nigeria – the largest caseload in Africa. Each year, we’re able to reconnect and reunite some, but many more remain missing.
For the ICRC, we do this work – seeking to reconnect and reunite families separated by conflict – all over the world.
We do this work because everyone deserves to know the fate or whereabouts of a lost loved one.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).