What a tragic relief to read mainstream media's stories on Nigeria this week.
Tragic, because more than 200 of the girls abducted from Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram last year still haven't been rescued -- and, as the nation's new president says, may never be.
A relief, because the media remembered the one-year anniversary this week.
Things like that often fade from public view as other stories grab headlines. So the follow-up stories in newspapers like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and news services like Reuters and CNN, are a genuine service -- both to American readers and to the still-grieving families in Nigeria.
The stories also keep the heat on the nation's authorities not to slack off the fight against the terrorists. But they largely omit the religious element -- a mutant, violent strain of Islam -- that fuels Boko Haram.
The Washington Post's story quickly recaps the kidnap, then the despair that activists are fighting:
It's been a whole year since Boko Haram militants stormed the remote town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria and abducted hundreds of schoolgirls from their dormitories and classrooms. The incident sparked worldwide horror and outrage, hashtags and protests.
But 219 of the girls are still missing. Some are thought to be dead. The extremists claim many of the girls have converted to Islam and gotten married; it's likely that they have been victims of rape and many other depravities.
And, a year on, there's a growing recognition that the girls may never be brought back.
A hat tip to the Post for correctly translating "Boko Haram" as "Books Are Forbidden." Many media stories wrongly define it as "Western education is sinful," as did Reuters this week.
The Washington Post majors on the ineptness of the Nigerian government. President Goodluck Jonathan, replaced as president in a recent election, often proclaimed victory over Boko Haram, but the government army suffered defeat after defeat. His successor, Muhammada Buhari, has said frankly that he isn't sure he can retrieve the girls.
Says the Post:
Activists turned the girls' abduction into a larger movement about the apathy and corruption of Nigeria's ruling elites. If it was a societal wake-up call, it doesn't seem to have changed much on the ground. The slogans bandied about at marches this week shifted forlornly from #BringBackOurGirls to #NeverToBeForgotten.
Finally, the Post dips into two reports for some chilling assessments. For me, the worst came from UNICEF: "Children have become deliberate targets, often subjected to extreme violence – from sexual abuse and forced marriage to kidnappings and brutal killings."
The much longer Los Angeles Times story broadens the scope to the wider war, and its rapes, shootings and throat cuttings.
The Times relies largely on an Amnesty International report released on Tuesday. Amnesty put numbers on the atrocities: 6,800 murdered since 2013, 46 bomb attacks between January 2014 and March 2015, more than 1.2 million people forced from their homes.
Amnesty also includes personal testimonies, such as:
* A girl, 19, who said she was raped by six men at a time. She added that some children were killed because they or "refused to learn how to kill others."
* A boy, 15, who said he had to take part, along with other children, in stoning people.
* A man, 20, who said he saw 100 men killed by having their throats cut.
* A boy, 18, who played dead in a pile of bodies as a Boko Haram fighter fired on them all.
Reuters, too, centers on the Amnesty International report. Reuters notes the report places the number of abductions much higher than the 200+ from Chibok: at least 2,000 girls and women since the start of 2014, "turning them into cooks, sex slaves and fighters, and sometimes killing those who refused to comply."
Reuters also draws on its long experience in Africa -- quoting, for instance, a "regional diplomat" that "Chadian troops had recently found a grave thought to contain Boko Haram 'soldier wives' killed by fleeing militants who feared they would reveal their identity." Also quoted is a U.N. envoy who says that Boko Haram may be using some of the girls as "human shields" in its hideout in the Sambisa Forest.
CNN's piece takes more of a retrospect, with specific numbers: the date of the Chibok kidnaps (April 14-15), the number of abductees (276), their ages (16 to 18), and how many escaped (about 50). CNN also recaps the presidential election and the Amnesty International report.
The CNN story also shares the despair of the Washington Post article. Although it says the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is still trending, it says that Boko Haram still controls "swathes of northeastern Nigeria." And worse:
Amnesty International says women and children continue to be abducted. And it says Boko Haram continues to kill in large numbers.
Beyond that, more than 200 schoolgirls who had gathered one year ago to take their science exam are still missing. Their families are still bereft.
One hole in the stories, as I said, is the lack of a religious facet. Boko Haram's victims are mainly Christians, plus Muslims who don’t share their ruthless version of the faith. The articles only hint at this in a couple of places.
The Amnesty report says that some of the dead were killed because they "refused to convert," though it's not specified from what. CNN comes closest, saying that the girls who couldn't escape, "it is feared, may have been raped, brutalized, enslaved and forced to convert to Islam." And according to the 20-year-old, "One Boko Haram fighter said we are not real Muslims because we have refused to join the fight."
I haven't read the Amnesty report directly, so it may not have included those backup facts. But the hints could have been fleshed out with some independent reporting. The warped spirituality behind this brutal conflict is not hard to learn, as tmatt and I have brought out here and here.
The numbers, the anecdotes, the politics, the tweet campaign -- yes, these all deserve a place in the follow-up stories. But the killings and abductions aren't happening in a vacuum. We need to be told, without ambiguity, why it's happening.