This week’s picture was taken in what is known as the Middle Belt in Nigeria. The village where the picture was taken had been ransacked a few months earlier by pastoralists, eager to claim the fertile land as their own.
I was told they came at 11pm, with guns. And not just any guns, these were state-of-the-art guns, which could only have come from gun smuggling and arms trading.
The attack was brutal and lasted a few hours, in which they:
- set fire to the village church, which was filled with villagers who’d ran inside for safety
- slaughtered nursing mothers and their children like rams
- burned people in their homes and watched as the air was filled with screams of dying children and their parents.
They did a lot more, but I will spare you the details.
When I spoke to one of the young soldiers assigned to guard the village, at first all he could do was shake his head. He said that he had never seen a scene such as the one he saw, when he first got to the village. “You should’ve seen the church – filled with people who were burnt alive. I saw a nursing mother and her child whose tongues were chopped off mid-feed.”
The soldier shook his head. “And these murderers think we’re practising the same religion. We’re not.”
He showed me the mass grave and I took photos from a respectable distance.
Letting the world know
Nigeria is a complex society that runs on ethnic and religious lines. The world’s attention is rightly focused on the abduction over 200 girls from Chibok, northern Nigeria, and on Boko Haram, a terrorist group that’s supposed to be campaigning for an Islamic state in Nigeria, and won’t let anything get in its way, hence the routine bombings on churches and anything it views as being anti-Islam.
However, there is another reason for the smouldering tension in Nigeria, which cannot be easily explained in pithy black/white arguments. A few months ago, I travelled around the Middle Belt and spoke to many, many people who’d suffered and lost families at the hands of other religious communities, because of their faith.
I was challenged by someone who asked why the western media were so keen to play down the “pogrom” against Christians in the Middle Belt in Nigeria, and yet, give Boko Haram vast column inches.
I couldn’t explain to the man that, in the west, especially the UK, that while media outlets were terrified of offending Muslims, by and large, they didn’t exercise the same restraints when it came to reporting news that concerned Christians. And for reasons far too complex to go into here.
After speaking to the man, I realised that I couldn’t stay silent. Nigeria might be a complex society. I might not be able to explain the shifting reasons behind the ethnic and religious tension, precisely because it is so complex. But, I could do something about the attacks against Christians in that part of Nigeria. This side of the complexity, I could do something about. Albeit with my camera.
The photographer’s dilemma
The children in this picture were orphaned by the attack on their village and were being cared for by community groups. During the day, they gathered in the village, under the watchful eye of the Nigerian army and the community groups that cared for them. And at night, they retreated to the local secondary school, which had been turned into a displacement camp for 80% of the villagers.
Having heard their stories, I wanted to tell the world, so that they (the world) could put a face to the story.
At the same time, I was deeply uncomfortable, because these children had suffered so much, and asking them for permission to take their picture was like rubbing salt in their wounds.
I asked the soldier if I could go ahead. He held out hands towards the children and I took the shot.
The boy who looked back
I’m not surprised the boys turned their backs when I took their picture. In fact, if you looked closer, it was quite obvious they didn’t want me there. I mean, they ignored me pretty much the whole time I was there. And who could blame them? I probably would have done the same if I was in their shoes.
However, I am grateful to the boy who turned his face to look at me.
I cannot bring back your parents. But, with this post, I hope I’ve done something to alert someone, anyone, about your story. And, maybe one day, someone will care enough to do something to stop these massacres.
That day, as I headed back to hear from yet more people about their experiences of being Christian and part of a minority tribe in the Middle Belt and northern Nigeria, I couldn’t stop thinking about the boy and his friends.
Their picture is in this post. When you go to bed tonight, think of them. Say a prayer for them and above all, pray for peace in Nigeria. This madness must stop.