Boko Haram atrocities get taut, fierce coverage from New York Times

When confronted with repeated viciousness, it's tempting to grow weary and turn away. But the New York Times has done the opposite with its coverage of the atrocities by Boko Haram:

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — They came in the dead of night, their faces covered, riding on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, shouting “Allahu akbar” and firing their weapons.
“They started with the shootings; then came the beheadings,” said Hussaini M. Bukar, 25, who fled after Boko Haram fighters stormed his town in northern Nigeria. “They said, ‘Where are the unbelievers among you?’ ”
Women and girls were systematically imprisoned in houses, held until Boko Haram extracted the ones it had chosen for “marriage” or other purposes.

The feature is 1,500 words, but it's written in taut, fierce, fast-reading fashion, told largely through the eyes and ears of refugees. The sourcing is astonishingly thorough, with direct quotes from at least 14 refugees plus the governor of Borno, the state where Maiduguri is the capital.

While it would be hard to check their stories -- Boko Haram leaders often don’t show their faces, let alone allow interviews -- the accounts dovetail into a systematic, brutal picture:

Refugees flocking into this besieged provincial capital describe a grim world of punishment, abduction and death under Boko Haram in the Islamist quasi state it has imposed in parts of northern Nigeria.
Mass open-air prayer sessions, conscription at gunpoint and occasional handouts of stolen food are the tools of its outreach, they say. Forced marriage, slavery and imprisonment are vital institutions in its way of life. And casually meted-out death — by shooting or beheading — is the punishment for men who refuse to join.
“They tied their hands behind their backs, said ‘Allahu akbar’ and cut their head off,” said Shuaibu Alhaji Kolo, 22, recounting how captured men were swiftly beheaded after the militants cried, “God is great.”

In literally Times-honored fashion, the article is laced with numbers and other details: the population of Maiduguri, the length of the war against Boko Haram thus far, the kinds of food the attackers gave away to try to win villagers over, the number of girls "parked" (imprisoned) in four houses for forced marriages.

Yet another virtue here: the many direct quotes. The Times doesn't merely name the victims or paraphrase their comments. It allows them to speak for themselves:

* "They would tell you to lie down, then shoot you in the head."

* You would see bodies everywhere."

* "They had told him to stay. Then they just shot him. They didn’t say anything."

* "They were using the old men to grind millet and corn. If they refused, they would beat them with a rifle."

For background, the Times links to an earlier story on growing cooperation among Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon in the fight against Boko Haram. Also helpful is a photo essay and timeline, providing an overview of the situation. Starting in July, for instance, Boko Haram began attacking towns and cities, some with more than 250,000 people -- "roughly the size of Buffalo or Reno, Nev.," the Times says.

One lack of detail is the religion of Boko Haram's victims. The article says they keep calling their victims "unbelievers" and "infidels." But most of those quoted in the story have Arabic names: Ali, Issa, Usman, Abdullahi, Abubakr, etc. Were they, in fact, non-Muslims? Or Muslims who didn’t share the terrorists' beliefs? The story would have been stronger if it had spelled this out.

Still, this is an extraordinary story. It might sound a bit flip to say "The Times they are a-changin'." But for a newspaper that has often missed spiritual angles and downplayed persecution of Christians, this article -- anguishing as it is to read -- comes as a welcome change.

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