Apr. 30, 2014
By Anne Perkins
Where are they?
Every morning, for a week, the news has been dominated by the South Korean ferry tragedy. The terrible grief of the parents, the shocking response of the crew to the unfolding disaster and the inexorably rising body count.
Two days before the South Korean students boarded their ferry for a study trip to the nearby island of Jeju, terrorists broke into a girls’ school in Chibok, in the remote state of Borno, in north-eastern Nigeria. They shot guards and abducted about 200 students, who were loaded into trucks and, it seems, taken off into the forest. Two groups of the girls, perhaps 30 in all, managed to escape. The rest have simply disappeared.
No one has admitted carrying out the mass kidnapping, although it is assumed to be the work of Boko Haram, the Al Qaida-linked jihadist group. Amnesty International says 1,500 people have been killed this year in the conflict between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces, more than half of them civilians. The latest bombing by the group was in Abuja, on the same day the girls were abducted, in which at least 70 people died. Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, was soon on the scene. The first appearance of the Borno state governor in Chibok came on Monday, eight days after the attack.
The fate of the Nigerian girls, who had been recalled to class in order to sit for a Physics exam, when all the other schools in the area were closed by security fears, has not been entirely ignored by the world’s media, but it has been overwhelmed by the story of the sinking of the Sewol.
Some of the reasons for that are obvious. The South Korean story has unfolded on camera, in a first-world country with every facility for news reporting. In contrast, the young Nigerians have vanished into the darkness of a dangerous world.
Nigeria is complex, messy and unfamiliar. It is easy to feel that what happens there is not real in the way that what happens on camera in South Korea is real. Watching the images of the almost mad grief of the parents, ready to plunge into the water themselves to find their sons and daughters, is like an awful realisation of one’s own worst imaginings. There is no such vivid expression of suffering from Borno, only the grainy images sent on poor satellite links showing the familiar devastation of catastrophe that could come from any of countless news reports. On Monday, a group of parents pooled resources to buy fuel and set off on their motorbikes into the forest, where the security forces dared not go, in a last despairing effort to save their daughters — only to have to turn back as night fell.
No one knows what will befall these young women. In February, Boko Haram — whose founding purpose is to defeat the influence of western education — murdered 59 students. Teachers, schools and children are in the front line. In Abuja, politicians talk of a decade-long war of containment against jihadsts to come, but already its objective of peace is being undermined by reports of extra-judicial killings by the military. The insecurity exacerbates the poverty and holds back development.
Like the tragedy in South Korea, the crisis in Borno is not some random act of God. It is human made. Yet, the loss of the Sewol may result, along with retribution against all of those responsible, in higher standards of seamanship and improvements in ship design. Future lives will be saved. The Seoul government will never again risk being exposed to the humiliation of its failure to protect its own young people.
It is much less likely that lessons will be learned from the abduction of the young Nigerian women from their school. The government in Abuja will ship in more soldiers. The West may contribute, as Tony Blair believes is necessary. Maybe in the end some kind of security will be achieved. But in this northern province there is an ancient legacy of Islamic rule and high civilisation that long predates British imperialism. Many, many innocent people will die first. There is scant interest in nuance, no serious debate about what the rest of the world could do to help. That is the real cost of global inattention.