“One day, I returned home from a trip to the market in a neighbouring town, and my family wasn’t there. Our village was attacked, and they fled to the hills. I wanted to go and look for them, but it was too dangerous,” Ahmed Jugule says in a low voice, almost whispering, his gaze turned towards the ground. “It’s been six years now, but I still think about them all the time, especially when I see children playing.” Ahmed’s quiet voice breaks into sobs followed by the heavy silence, as he takes a couple of minutes to compose himself before continuing. “I remember I used to hear about these things happening in other places, but I could never imagine it would happen to us.”
We are sitting on a bright coloured plastic mat next to a grey tarpaulin hut that has become Ahmed’s home after he fled his native village in the Lake Chad region. To this day, he doesn’t know what happened to his wife and five children after the violent wave of war threw them in different directions. He doesn’t know and may never find out if they are dead or alive.
Ahmed’s hut, on the outskirts of a Nigerian town called Yola, is surrounded by dozens of others identical to it. The armed conflict in northeast Nigeria has lasted for more than a decade, forcing some two million people to flee their homes. Many live in makeshift camps of various shapes and sizes.
When I walk through the camps, almost every person I stop to speak to tells me they lost a close family member to the violence. Many, like Ahmed, live the agony of not knowing the fate of their loved ones. There are 23,000 cases of missing people registered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nigeria, and more than half of them are children.
Just like the grey tarpaulin huts and the colourful mats that their dwellers offer as a customary gesture of hospitality to invite visitors to sit down, the stories they tell are similar and different at the same time. They are the stories of pain and loss, of lives shattered to pieces and families torn apart. They all start with war showing up at their doorstep, brutally and unexpectedly. They all continue with trying to learn how to live with the loss and the uncertainty, with the not knowing. What makes each story unique are the memories. People keep a tight grip on the memories of their missing relatives, not letting any meaningful detail slip away. Traces of character, habits, things they were good at or enjoyed doing, a favourite food.
Twenty-three thousand cases of missing people mean 23,000 families who keep the memory of conflict alive and keep searching. Often, they search for many years, finding glimpses of hope and then losing them again. “Whenever I hear that somebody is coming from my native Ngoza I run to talk to them, hoping they would know something,” says Mohamed Aman. He has been trying to find information about his missing father for the past six years. When Ngoza came under attack, Mohamed’s father told him to run for his life, though his father couldn’t follow. “He was 72 at the time, so he wouldn’t have made it. The journey was so harsh that even some young people died on the way,” Mohamed remembers. “The last thing he told me was never to fight anybody and to work hard.”
The lack of information means that relatives of the missing people cannot go through the mourning process and find closure. This uncertainty translates into enormous emotional and psychological suffering that can last for many years. “I still cry, whenever I am alone at home,” says Aisha Adamu, who lost sight of her sister after they both fled an attack on their village. “She taught me so many things. We had never been apart for more than two weeks.”
In addition to the deep emotional pain, families of the missing people in Nigeria – most of them displaced from their homes – often face stigma and suspicion among the communities who host them. There is a widespread belief that if someone went missing, they joined armed opposition groups. “It is tough for us to find daily work because locals don’t want to hire us,” Mohamed says. “The parcels of land we manage to get are the worst.”
In 2019, the ICRC started training relatives of the missing people to run group sessions and give psycho-social support to other people in the same situation. “For many of them this is the first time they share with someone what happened and talk about how they feel,” says Precious, the ICRC programme assistant. “We also encourage them to think about the missing person in a positive way.” Besides the emotional relief, the sessions help relatives of the missing people to get to know each other and build a supportive community. “I realised that my son is one missing child among many others,” says Dinatu Gadare. “Sharing my pain with other families brought comfort.”
Ahmed, Mohamed, Aisha, Dinatu, and thousands of other people like them deserve to know the fate of the ones they love. Nigerian Red Cross volunteers work hard to bring the long-awaited answers to them. But the conflict and the rampant insecurity makes large parts of the northeast of the country inaccessible, and the number of resolved cases remains painfully low. In 2020, COVID-19 entered the equation, making tracing work even harder. Despite these harsh realities, the families of the missing people and the pain they go through must not be forgotten.
This article is part of the “Forgotten Conflicts” series by the International Committee of the Red Cross in partnership with AIIA, highlighting the serious and often overlooked humanitarian consequences of armed conflicts and other situations of violence.
Alyona Synenko is an ICRC spokesperson working in Africa.
This article was originally published on Australian Outlook by the Australian Institute of International Affairs under Creative Commons Licence.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.