• Send page
  • Print page

Sudan: a real Eid treat

06-11-2009 Feature

For 11 years, young Yusuf Muhammad had not seen his mother because he had fled the conflict in Darfur and crossed into Chad while she remained in Sudan. Through sheer determination on his part, and help from the ICRC, mother and son are now back together.

Young Yusuf Muhammad at the ICRC delegation in Khartoum, Sudan. 

ICRC delegation, Khartoum. Yusuf with his mother and little cousin. 

Khartoum. Yusuf (second from right) with his mother and the ICRC staff who helped reunite them.  

For Yusuf Muhammad, who had been separated from his mother for eleven years, the timing of his reunion with her could not have been better. It was the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, just days before the Eid festivities that mark the end of 30 days of fasting.

The 17-years-old Yusuf is overwhelmed by the turn his life has taken in the last few days. Following a deluge of phone calls and administrative procedures he is finally aboard an ICRC airplane from Alfasher, in North Darfur, heading to Khartoum to be reunited with his long-lost mother.

Eleven years have passed since mother and child were separated. Since her divorce from Yusuf's father in 1998, the mother had been living in Al-Jazirah in northern Sudan with one of her children. Yusuf, his father and a younger brother had remained in Darfur. When the conflict broke out in Darfur in 2003, Yusuf, who was 10 years old at the time, crossed over to Chad with his father and brother to join other Darfuris in a refugee camp in Abeche on the Chad-Sudan border.

 The long search  

The young man had been “obsessed with the idea of seeing his mother again,” according to Anne Chassaing, an ICRC delegate in Alfasher, who has been following the adolescent's story in an effort to help end his ordeal. His father’s remarriage might have hastened Yusuf's decision to leave the refugee camp and travel back to Sudan to search for his mother.

When he learned about his son’s plans, Yusuf’s father was worried about him taking such great risks, but could not stop him. In October 2008, Yusuf started his trip back to Sudan alone, sometimes on foot, sometimes hitching a ride with whoever would take him. He reached Nyala, in South Darfur in late October, and decided to continue his journey northward.

In the town of Shangil Tobaya, he found his way into a compound belonging to the African Union - United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur. From there, he was directed to Muhammad Isa, an ICRC volunteer, who gave him accommodation for a few weeks in his own home before taking him to the ICRC sub-delegation in Alfasher at the end of July 2009 to be registered as a person seeking to be reunited with a family member.

In Alfasher, Yusuf gave his mother’s last known address to the ICRC team to trace and locate her. “I traveled to Al-Manaqil locality in Al-Jazirah state, over 300 kilometres southwest of Khartoum, to locate Yusuf’s mother,” said Abd al-Farraj Muhammad, an ICRC tracing officer based in Khartoum. ”She immediately wrote a Red Cross message to him and signed a re-unification agreement to get her son back.”

“An exchange of Red Cross messages between mother and son followed,” says Khalid Hasan, another ICRC tracing officer who worked on the case.

Meanwhile, the ICRC team was working hard on a better plan. Soon they gave Yusuf the big news: not only were they able to locate his mother and one of her cousins, but they had also organized for all three to be flown to Khartoum in order to meet.

From then on, things moved so fast that it looked like some divine intervention was at play to offer Yusuf a present for the Eid: his mother, in person!

“The boy has been through hard times,” said Taisser Hasson, ICRC tracing officer in Alfasher. “But he has also experienced real Sudanese solidarity. He lived in Darfur without money, yet he always had food and sh elter. Every day, people who did not even know him showed him kindness.”

Anne Chassaing said that Yusuf was able to talk to his mother for the first time by telephone on 2 September, when he came to the ICRC in Alfasher to sign the family re-unification agreement. “After that he called me continuously to ask when he would travel to meet his mother,” she said. When I left him on the ICRC plane, he seemed restless with anticipation, overwhelmed at the idea that he would finally be with his mother.”

 At last, mother and son are reunited  

The meeting between Yusuf and his mother and her cousin on 17 September at the ICRC delegation in Khartoum was a mixture of emotions: happiness, gratitude, sadness and laughter. All this gave the ICRC team a sense of achievement and satisfaction. For, over the previous, week, the ICRC tracing team had done every thing they could to ensure that the family celebrated Eid together. As for Yusuf, he is still in a dreamy haze: his new reality has not yet sunk in.

The mother was all smiles and happiness. “I have not seen him for 11 years,” she said, “a very, very long time for a mother not to see her child. I am very happy.”

The young man had made good use of his time in the refugee camp. “I went to school and finished 7th, grade,” he said while waiting for his mother at the ICRC offices in Khartoum. “I hope to finish school and study English at one of the universities of Khartoum or Juba.” As his father was employed with one of the aid organizations in the camp, Yusuf took advantage to learn English, which he speaks fluently now.

The ICRC helps family members who have been separated by the conflict to re-establish contact, usually through Red Cross messages containing personal and family news, that are distributed across the country through the network of volunteers from the Sudanese Red Crescent Society. In addition, the ICRC actively tries to locate missing family members and, whenever possible, reunites children and other vulnerable persons – such as elderly or disabled people- separated from their loved ones with them.