The miracle of Dzawandai, Cameroon | Cameroon | UNICEF

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Cameroon

The miracle of Dzawandai, Cameroon

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© UNICEF Cameroon/2016/Brecher
Francois, Alexis, Waibai, Delphine, Elisabeth, Rosalie and baby Samson, finally together again under Francois’s roof. In the chaos after a Boko Haram attack, Rosalie could not find her children. She searched everywhere, and her quest took her to Dzawandai where she found her three daughters well taken care of by Francois.
 

By Alexandre Brecher

When Francois Sakotai offered shelter to three young displaced girls, he didn’t know his generosity would spark a miracle: the reunification of a mother and her children.

DZAWANDAI, Cameroon, 25 August 2016 – When asked about his age, Francois Sakotai smiles. “I don’t know, he said, maybe 70, 80? The only thing I can say, is that I am old. I am old and I was lonely, until Elisabeth, Delphine and Waibai came to my home.”

Let’s go back to the spring of 2015. The Far North region is regularly hit by violent attacks by Boko Haram. “But they never made it here to Dzawandai,” Francois explains. “Some neighbouring villages were not as lucky.” Francois recalls pointing towards the winding road. “Two out of four villages along the road were attacked, burned and people were killed.”

At least 2.6 million people are uprooted due to the conflict, including 1.4 million children.

>>  Read the report: Children on the move, children left behind: Uprooted or trapped by Boko Haram

Where are my children?

Boko Haram also stormed the village of Shogulè, where Rosalie Tawasa lived with her husband and their five children. Rosalie was in the market shopping with her newborn tied to her back when her village was attacked.

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© UNICEF Cameroon/2016/Brecher
Rosalie was separated from her children when Boko Haram attacked her village. When her children were nowhere to be found she started the quest of finding them.

“I heard a loud explosion in the village, then the sound of gunfire,” she recalls. Her husband was out working in the fields while her three daughters and oldest son were home alone. “I rushed home to get my kids but when I arrived the house was empty – they were gone.”

Rosalie desperately looked for her children but they were nowhere to be found. “My whole body was shaking. I walked down every road, on every path, asking every child I met: have you seen my children? Where did they go?”

Protecting my sisters

“We heard the gunshots but I didn’t understand what was going on. I’d heard about Boko Haram but I didn’t know it was them,” Elisabeth says. She is ten years old and Rosalie’s oldest daughter. The three sisters hid on the floor in the house, their brother Alexis who was playing in the neighbourhood was nowhere to be found.

Outside their house people were fleeing and the sisters decided to follow suit into the woods. “For the next few days, the forest became our home,” Elisabeth recalls. “The hardest part was that we didn’t know where our parents were – I had to protect my sisters, and myself.”

The first miracle

Three young girls, tired and terrified, stood in front of Francois’s farmhouse. “They were famished. I gave them water, food, and asked where their parents were. They told me what happened and I offered for them to stay with me until they found their parents.”

While the three sisters were safe with Francois, Rosalie kept searching for her children. She can’t remember if it was days or weeks, but she kept searching. One day her search took her to Dzawandai. She asked the village chief if he knew any displaced children, and he immediately took her to Francois’s house.

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© UNICEF Cameroon/2016/Brecher
Elisabeth was home alone with her two sisters when Boko Haram attacked her village. After hiding in the house she and her sisters had to make the difficult decision of staying or going. “We decided to walk straight ahead,” Elisabeth said.

“I started screaming ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ as soon as I saw her,” Elisabeth says, wearing a face splitting grin. The three sisters were finally reunited with their mother Rosalie. However, there was still one piece of Rosalie’s heart missing - her son Alexis.

Weeks turned to months and Rosalie never stopped worrying about Alexis. A year later, when visiting a market in a neighbouring town Mokolo, she spotted a boy who looked like her son. The boy spotted her too and immediately ran towards her and jumped into her arms. Alexis had spent the last year with a family that had taken him in.

Taking time to recover

Many displaced people have found shelter in the Far North Region of Cameroon. UNICEF and its partners work in 31 villages in the area, as well as the Minawao refugee camp, to create a protective environment for children who have been affected by the conflict and to address risks in terms of protection and violation of their rights.

Although Rosalie and her children are now reunited, it will take some time to recover. With support from UNICEF and a local association ALDEPA, Elisabeth, Delphine, Waibai and Alexis can participate in recreational and learning activities alongside other refugee and displaced children.

Two hundred animators from ALDEPA are deployed in the Far North Region to play with the children, run educational activities and visit their families. These interventions aim at giving children a sense of normality while helping them recover from the violence they witnessed and preparing them for school.

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© UNICEF Cameroon/2016/Brecher
For Francois, it was natural to open his home to the three hungry and exhausted girls standing at his doorstep. To him every person is equal and deserves whatever help they need. After helping these girls he now has a brand new family with Rosalie and her children living under his roof.

UNICEF is also working with other key protection actors (the Government, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Committee of the Red Cross and Cameroon Red Cross) to focus on identification, documentation and tracing of unaccompanied and separated boys and girls. These efforts will support family reunification and reintegration of unaccompanied children within their families.

My home is their home

“It was natural for me to offer shelter to the children and now also to Rosalie and her son,” says Francois. “For me, a human being is a human being. If one day they decide to leave, it will be their choice, but if they decide to stay, my home will be theirs after I die. They are my family now.”

Their new life on the farm will pass with harvest and dry seasons. It is a new start. For Rosalie, however, she is left wondering if her husband will ever return.
 
“I haven’t given up hope,” she says. “God helped me find my children, maybe one day he’ll help me find my husband.”

Will another miracle happen in Dzawandai?


 

 

UNICEF Photography: Uprooted by Boko Haram

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