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Afghanistan: Against all the odds, a mother finds her missing child

04-03-2014 Feature

After an eight-year-old Afghan boy was lost in Pakistan, where his family lived, and taken to Afghanistan by a well-meaning stranger, the ICRC set out to find his relatives. The tale of a cross-border search that overcame a lack of clues and ended well.

ICRC Field Officer Abdul Baqi with Sali  

Lashkar Gah Afghanistan
ICRC Field Officer Abdul Baqi with Sali
© ICRC / Enrique Ochoa

Almost one year ago, an eight-year-old Afghan boy, Sali, was found wandering alone on the streets of Quetta, Pakistan's sixth largest city that lies close to the border with Afghanistan. Sali was lost, could not even recall the names of his parents, nor give any clue as to where his family lived or came from.

The man who found him, being concerned about leaving him on the streets alone, took Sali with him when he returned to Lashkar Gah in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. He believed he might have come from there, and upon his arrival alerted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which had an office in town.

Tracing people who have lost contact with loved ones, or putting families that have become separated by war back in touch, is a fundamental part of Red Cross and Red Crescent work all over the world. Some cases are easy to solve, others take years. Sali’s case did not look promising.

It was Abdul Baqi, an ICRC field officer, who took on the case and befriended the boy. He even brought him to stay with his family until a long-term solution as to where to place him could be found. Sali was eventually admitted to a children’s home run by the Afghan government’s Department of Social Welfare in Lashkar Gah, but Abdul Baqi and other ICRC staff continued to visit him regularly, bringing him clothes and toys.

Despite being well looked after, young Sali was haunted by his missing family. "I was always seeing my mother in my dreams, and my brother and little sister, too," he confided. The other children in the centre nicknamed Sali 'Sor Salib' – Red Cross. He made friends with a boy called Nimatullah and they filled the long hours of boredom between school lessons with conversation and play.

Back in the ICRC office, Abdul Baqi was struggling with an almost insurmountable task: how to find Sali’s parents when there was no clue as to where to start.

"The problem was, we did not even know where to begin to look for the family," admits Abdul Baqi.

After a number of false starts, the team began to think that Sali’s family might be living in Pakistan as refugees. ICRC contacts in Quetta were alerted and asked to spread the word, hoping that someone would recognize their missing child and come forward.

One family did respond, and even came to Lashkar Gah to identify him, but Sali was not their child. It all looked pretty hopeless, and the months were passing.

The one hint that Sali could give to Abdul Baqi was the name of an imam in whose madrassa he had studied. It was a vital clue.

Eventually, the madrassa was located and the imam identified. The family who had come to Lashkar Gah on a false trail promised to take a photo of Sali to the imam. As a result, another family saw the photo and recognized their child. They, too, came hotfoot to Lashkar Gah.

Sali’s uncle, brother, mother and two small sisters, together with the ICRC’s Abdul Baqi, went to the children's home on 7 February. Sali’s brother Bakht recognized his sibling immediately. When Sali saw his mother he cried: "Yes it's her!"

The family were reunited on 7 February in Lashkar Gah. ©ICRC/E.Ochoa

Sali’s mother was overwhelmed. "I only expected to see my son's dead body," she said between tears of joy. "I thought the wolves or dogs must have eaten him. We searched everywhere but could not find him."

"I am happy to see my mother so happy again," Bakht chimed in. "Our father travelled to several places looking for him. We searched for him everywhere. Then we got tired and felt hopeless and lost all interest in living."

As the family left together for their journey back to Pakistan, it was hard to tell who had the biggest smile – Sali himself or Abdul Baqi, who, against all the odds, had triumphed.