Mary spent three years trying to find her two young sons after they were abducted by armed Boko Haram insurgents when they launched an attack on their town in Borno state, Nigeria.
Last month, she was finally reunited with 16-year-old Julius and 14-year-old Joseph.
The two boys managed to escape their captors and flee to Cameroon. Now, Plan International is helping with the transition by providing food and psychological support.
Millions of children have felt the brunt of the conflict in northeast Nigeria. Violent attacks by Boko Haram, together with counter-insurgency measures, have been taking place since 2009 in the Lake Chad region and have intensified since 2013.
More than 17 million people in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon have now been affected. More than 2.4 million people have been forced from their homes, 1.5 million of whom are children.
Julius and Joseph had been staying with their uncle when insurgents struck their town, kidnapping them and taking them deep into the Sambisa forest along with other boys from the town. Before they left, they were forced to watch as their uncle was executed in front of them.
The boys were held captive in the forest for three years.
“[Insurgents] attempted to teach us how to fight with guns, but one of their leaders stopped them, arguing that we were too young,” Julius said.
The children were made to watch when the militants killed people and commanded them to clean up the bloody aftermath.
“Each time I refused to do their bidding, they hit my leg with iron rods,” said Julius, showing scars on his legs. “It hurt so much.”
“We did not receive much food,” added Joseph. “Some 20 of us often had to share one meal. We barely managed to survive.”
At the end of 2016, while their captors were away from the camp raiding a community, the two brothers managed to escape. They navigated their way through the vast woods before crossing the border into Cameroon, where they were taken to a refugee camp.
For the duration of their captivity, Mary never lost hope that she would find her boys and travelled thousands of miles following leads regarding their whereabouts. Once she heard that a group of unaccompanied children had arrived in Yola, so she set out to find them. Although she wasn’t able to find them then, she never gave up hope.
When she heard there were unaccompanied children in neighboring Cameroon, she sold off all her possessions, including her mattress, to raise money for the journey. Despite being pregnant, she set off on the long journey and was overjoyed to find Julius and Joseph in one of the refugee camps.
Plan International, in partnership with the German Federation Foreign Office, is now supporting Mary with food aid and providing the boys with the psychosocial support and other materials they need to rebuild their lives and start the recovery process.
Mary hopes that her children will return to school and one day be able to live normal lives again.