More of that 'ethnic' violence stuff

Sometimes, it's amazing to see how far people will go to downplay the obvious role that religion plays in many parts of the world, for better and for worse. Consider the recent New York Times story that ran under this headline: "Ethnic Violence in Nigeria Has Killed 500, Officials Say."

Now, the choice of the word "ethnic" for the headline is crucial. Clearly, tribal issues played a role in this hellish story. But is the ethnic element the pivotal, defining fact in this story? Here's the top of the report:

Officials and human rights groups in Nigeria said ... that about 500 people had died in weekend ethnic violence near the central city of Jos, considerably more than what had initially been reported.

A government spokesman said ... that the dead numbered more than 300. The victims were Christians killed by rampaging Muslim herdsmen, officials and human rights workers said, apparently in reprisal for similar attacks on Muslims in January.

This is a complex story and the lines between faith and blood are quite thin in the region. But the question is obvious: What about the attacks on Muslims in January? Any details available?

I know that the story has continued to develop and I will get to that. I am simply challenging the headline and the lede, that ethnicity is the defining element of this story. Later in the story, we read:

The killings took place in Plateau State near the city of Jos, for years a hotbed of ethnic and religious violence near the dividing line between the country's mainly Christian south and Muslim north. Hundreds on both sides were killed as recently as January, though the victims this time were Christians, according to the information commissioner for Plateau, Gregory Yenlong, and a local human rights organization.

Many appeared to have been cut down with machetes after being driven from homes set ablaze by attackers in the predawn darkness, said Shamaki Gad Peter of the League for Human Rights, a Nigerian group.

Mr. Yenlong said the attackers were "hoodlums, Fulani herdsmen" -- Muslims from a neighboring state, Bauchi, who were going after Christian members of Plateau's leading ethnic group, the Berom, in the villages of Ratt and Dogo Nahawa.

"They attacked those villages and killed well over 300 people, mostly women, children and the aged," Mr. Yenlong said. "They killed them unprovoked. Innocent people were massacred."

I understand that it is hard to know all the details in this kind of early report. However, it's clear that religion is a key part of this "ethnic" story.

An Associated Press follow-up story that ran in USA Today elected to use the word "sectarian" as the defining characteristic of the violence. That's closer to the mark. The report also, as you would expect, had many more details from the scene. Here is a sample:

The killers showed no mercy: They didn't spare women and children, or even a 4-day-old baby, from their machetes. On Monday, women wailed in the streets as a dump truck carried dozens of bodies past burned-out homes toward a mass grave.

Rubber-gloved workers pulled ever-smaller bodies from the dump truck and tossed them into the mass grave. A crowd began singing a hymn with the refrain, "Jesus said I am the way to heaven." As the grave filled, the grieving crowd sang: "Jesus, show me the way."

At least 200 people, most of them Christians, were slaughtered on Sunday, according to residents, aid groups and journalists. The local government gave a figure more than twice that amount, but offered no casualty list or other information to substantiate it.

The most frustrating element of all of this is that there is no clear way to establish facts in this conflict, a journalistic nightmare in which the integrity of both the regional and national government agencies (and the military) is in question. It is also clear that economic and ethnic factors are crucial. Yet, on the ground, the language and the imagery is primarily religious.

If you doubt me on that, check out this vivid report in the Wall Street Journal. The language is enough to make anyone shudder in a pew:

At a mass burial Monday in Dogo Nahawa, site of the worst violence, angry residents talked of revenge as they gathered around a large pit and scattered dirt on several dozen charred and bloodied bodies, some brought from neighboring villages. When an infant was lowered into the pit, women broke out in wails.

A village chief chastised area youth for not being ready to fight. "This is a lesson," the chief said. "Now is the time for everyone to wake up. Elders are calling you youths to come out."

An elderly woman prayed at the edge of the burial pit, chanting. "By God's grace we will enter their villages and kill their women and children," she repeated.

Horrors. Clearly it is impossible to write about this story -- in a nation that is literally divided in half by religion -- without dealing with the religious elements.

It is also crucial, whenever possible, to put names on these "rights groups" when they are quoted providing facts about attacks in the past and present. Some of these groups are neutral and some of them are not. We are, literally, dealing with facts and numbers that are leading to bloodshed.

Lord have mercy.

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