A 14-year-old Cameroonian boy who was wrongly evacuated to Nigeria at the age of five, and has spent nine years in several internally displaced persons camps in Adamawa State, is crying out for help to return to his country.
During his nine-year struggles in the conflict area, the boy survived a deadly bomb attack by Boko Haram and endured hunger, trauma and deprivation. His association with camp officials and volunteers left a deep impression of pervading corruption in the humanitarian sector where workers allegedly divert supplies meant for victims of insurgency.
The influx of thousands of Nigerian refugees into Cameroon after terrorists invaded their communities between 2014 and 2015 had created tension in the Central African country already threatened by cross border attacks on its fringe communities.
Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati Waljihad also known as Boko Haram carried out deadly attacks on civilian and military targets and controlled a large territory across Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states in North East Nigeria, abducting women and conscripting children.
An estimated 30,000 people died in the conflict while three million others have been displaced internally and in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
At the escalation of attacks in 2015 when the population of displaced Nigerians taking refuge in Cameroon swelled and the two countries reached an agreement to return them back, a little boy returning from an errand for his mother in a Cameroonian border town saw hundreds of Nigerian refugees being evacuated in trailers and thought the whole town including his family was fleeing.
The little boy innocently rushed to the rowdy scene to join the queue and a kind soldier lifted him up on to an overcrowded truck packed with women and children. His journey to Nigeria just began.
As soon as the returnees arrived a transit camp in Mubi, a border commercial town in Nigeria, humanitarian officials discovered that a French-speaking boy was not accompanied by any relative or acquaintance. The officials had to call in an interpreter to communicate with him.
“My name is Ahmed Muhammed. I am 14 years old and I am from Cameroon. My mother sent me to buy things and on my way back home, I saw many people being loaded in to trucks, I thought my parents were among them so I entered the truck. We were escorted by soldiers to a camp in Mubi. After arriving in Mubi, I was asked where my mother was, I said I thought she was among them. In Mubi, I got food, clothes and soldiers gave me pocket money when they were paid salaries. I remember my mother so often,” he said.
Nicknamed ‘Petit’, a French word meaning small (boy) by older camp mates, Ahmed became a household name among batches of refugee-returnees and internally displaced persons having lived in four different camps since 2015 with no trace of his parents or relatives.
Struggling with the harshness of camp life and melancholic thought of his parents and siblings whose names he has not forgotten, Petit shows signs of trauma, loneliness and discontent with camp life, yet he has grown older, speaking fluent Hausa and forgetting much of French language except a few words.
From the transit camp in Mubi, Ahmed was moved some 200 kilometres deep in to Nigeria to the NYSC camp located in Damare on the outskirts of Yola, the Adamawa State capital, where he lived for two years under the care of a Nigerian Red Cross volunteer, Ibrahim Hamid.
Ibrahim told Daily Trust Saturday that Ahmed was as little as five to six years old when he was admitted at the camp, so small that he often wet his bed and couldn’t do laundry by himself and spoke only French and Fulfulde (Fulani).
A lady said to be a staff of the Department of State Security (DSS) on assignment at the camp sympathised with the little child and offered to sponsor his education. Ibrahim secured an admission for him in a private primary school and the woman paid for everything.
The boy would leave the camp every morning, dressed up and holding his school bag and food flask like any child from a well-to-do family. He was happy and every one at Damare camp was happy for him that his future would be bright.
Then suddenly, the woman stopped communicating with Ibrahim and funding abruptly stopped, this seems to have affected the boy as he often lamented about it as a major setback to his early education. He now had to rely on the poorly equipped camp school.
“I stayed at the camp in Mubi for about a year. From Mubi I was moved to Damare where a woman enrolled me in a private school. She told NEMA officials that she would sponsor me. She bought Indomie noodles, Bobo drink and coke which I took to school. After sometime, she stopped coming and stopped sending money. I don’t know what really happened,” he said.
At the camp, Petit came to understand why those Nigerian refugees left their homes in Nigeria and fled to his country after he came face to face with death during a deadly bomb blast by Boko Haram that killed some people right in his presence. Having escaped by the whiskers, he now saw the monster that pursued those refugees to his country.
“The bomb attack really shocked me. I was sitting around the clinic when a bomb exploded. I ran in fear, every one was confused. I thought I would be killed that moment. I ran and lay flat on my belly on the ground, then soldiers arrived. I saw three dead soldiers and a corpse of Boko Haram bomber. I did not sleep for three days. Residents of the area then protested against the camp in their community and many of my friends eventually left for Maiduguri.”
Upon closure of the camp, inmates were transferred to another camp in Malkohi village and Petit, being a minor, was put in the care of a woman, Kaltume, living in her tent among her children but life was already becoming more difficult for the Cameroonian as he grew older and realised that supplies from government and other donors were shrinking, so also the food ration shared to inmates.
Kaltume, who fled her community in Pulka in Southern Borno and lost her husband to Boko Haram’s bullet, could not get enough food and other needs for the expanded household. Herself and older children including the adopted Cameroonian boy had to go out in search of low paying jobs that were hardly available.
Sometimes, Petit works on farms as a labourer for the whole day to get N500 to buy some food, soap and then pay transport fare back to the camp. Sometimes, he would sneak out of the camp to roam around farmlands in search of possible labour. Despite his efforts, he often sleeps on an empty stomach.
Fatima, an older girl Petit met at the camp used to bring succour to him by counselling and encouraging him to attend school. She even gave him pocket money. Now, she has gotten married and relocated to her husband’s house in Ngurore, a small town located 25 kilometres away. Her departure opened another vacuum in his life.
Despite the setbacks, Petit graduated from the camp primary school but could not afford the fees required for admission in a public secondary school. He could not raise N2,500 (roughly the equivalent of two dollars) talk less of buying new set of school uniforms.
This shows the difficulty faced by displaced children living in government IDPs camps in accessing secondary education despite huge resources allocated to various agencies to cater for the welfare of insurgency victims or to provide intervention in critical areas of their lives.
Ahmed’s mind has never been far from his family, sometimes he wonders if he would ever return home or see his mother again. For nine years, he kept memorizing the names of his close family members.
“I often cry whenever the thought of my family crosses my mind. More than ever, I feel the need to return home. I am doing nothing here. I cannot go to school because I don’t have the money and nobody is there to support me,” he said.
Ahmed plays football with his friends at the primary school ground and believes so much in his goalkeeping ability but the lack of facility took him back in the game that provides psychological escape from his predicament and illuminates his mood so much that he sometimes forgets he is lost in a foreign country.
In July, the boy was allocated a room at a new housing estate built by the United Nations Human Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Labondo village in Girei Local Government Area to resettle displaced persons and refugee-returnees but soon, he realised it was not a place for him. There were no menial job opportunities around while the financial assistance he expected from the UNHCR was not forth coming.
After some days, hunger displaced him back to the camp but his foster mother Kaltume had returned to Borno, her state of origin. He found a new mother, Hadiza Mai Shara, whom he knew for some time.
“Hunger is our major problem, we often eat baobab leaves because we don’t have food,” he stated.
Daily Trust Saturday investigations revealed that the International Committee on Red Cross (ICRC) through its Family Link programme had made some progress in their effort to reunite the boy with his family in Cameroon.
However, some families are concerned that the ICRC process is cumbersome and unnecessarily slow, sometimes taking years to reunite families with missing members after tracing them, while some of the missing persons seem to have been forgotten in camps.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Head of Operations in Adamawa and Taraba states, Ladan Ayuba, told Daily Trust Saturday that there were efforts to reunite unaccompanied children with their families with the help of the ICRC.
Officials at the ICRC office did not immediately respond to our request for comment, saying relevant officers would get back to our correspondent later for an interview.
However, speaking at an event to mark the International Day for the Disappeared in Yola on August 30, the ICRC’s Families of the Missing Field Officer, Precious Binta Yaro, as well as the Deputy Head of Delegation, Fatima Halilu Ibrahim, disclosed that a total of 25,000 missing people were registered by the ICRC and the NRCs in Nigeria since the outbreak of Boko Haram insurgency in the North East.