If you recognise the first part of the title as coming from ‘The Prisoner’, award yourself a silver star! But, be warned, that’s as cheerful as the mood of this post gets.
Today I was planning to write something superficial about massacres and kidnappings. Forgive me if that sounds shocking. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that they don’t matter, it’s just that I’m not knowledgeable enough to delve deeply into the subject.
The idea started brewing a couple of months ago when we went to a concert. There I heard a song about a massacre.
In that massacre, I read later, eleven people – nine men, two women – were killed and four hundred wounded.
It took place in Manchester, in northern England, in 1819 and later became known as Peterloo*.
There’s a plaque commemorating the event on the wall of what was, until 1997, the ‘Free Trade Hall’. Built on St Peter’s Field, the site of the massacre, it’s now a Radisson hotel.
The plaque tells us fifteen people were killed and 600 injured, but we’ll never know the exact figures. Given the context and our distance from it, that’s hardly surprising.
Then, a week ago I saw a report of a massacre in Nigeria. It was in the Guardian newspaper. A smallish item compared with the pages devoted to the Paris killings. But at least it was there – a rarity, at that point.
‘As many as’ 2000 people were feared dead, according to Amnesty, the report said.
Yesterday, six days later, images from Amnesty were shared on Facebook and reproduced in other media showing clusters of homes burnt to the ground.
I don’t have the resources of a news organisation, nor the confidence to explore the complex underpinnings of Nigerian politics and the havoc being wreaked by Boko Haram terrorists. But there are things we know.
In Nigeria an election campaign is underway.
The authorities in Nigeria do not agree with Amnesty’s estimates of how many have died.
And on this they have form.
Step back in time a few months.
Remember the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria?
Do you remember how many there were?
The Nigerian authorities’ figures have varied wildly. It was initially claimed that 85 girls were abducted, then that 129 had been kidnapped but 100 had escaped. Finally, it was admitted that possibly 276 had been taken. Since then some plucky girls have escaped.
How could the authorities slice a hundred or more human beings – girls – off the figures, for appearances’ sake?
How did anyone have the gall to quibble about numbers when they should have been doing their damnedest to get them back?
Do you know why so many girls were at that school, overnight, at that particular time?
They were there so they could take their exams in safety. They had come from all over the area that is worst affected by Boko Haram. They wanted to make a better life for themselves through education.
Boko Haram apparently means ‘Western Education is forbidden’.
According to Africa Factcheck, it’s probable 219 young women and girls remain captives.
I suspect there’s little hope, now, they will be freed in any condition fit to carry on their former lives. To take their certificates of secondary education.
Amnesty also claims that the Nigerian authorities had at least four hours’ warning that the kidnappings were imminent. Who knows the truth? I don’t.
The girls have not been entirely forgotten.
Every now and again I go onto Twitter, jaded, to see if the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is still running. But Twitter can only raise virtual storms, it can’t change the weather. Yes, Michelle Obama famously Tweeted the slogan – but ‘our’ girls are still not back – and the world moves on.
Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere, we have, for the last few days, been bombarded with news of twelve murders in and around the Charlie Hebdo offices and four at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
We’ve seen videos. Heard eye witnesses recount their experiences.
We’ve followed the trail of the terrible tragedy with countless reporters, shipped-in, post-haste, like ghouls at an unholy feast.
In Britain, we’ve watched and listened as BBC newsreaders and radio presenters popped up on the streets of Paris – introducing the BBC’s own correspondents, who were already there. ‘Me too, I want to play,’ it felt like they were saying.
But at least – conspiracy theories aside – thanks to them we know how many people were killed, how many murderers there were – and how many extra copies of Charlie Hebdo were published after the event.
We know world leaders linked arms, actors wore pencils on the red carpet.
And everyone learned to say Je suis.
Please, don’t think I am belittling this terrible tragedy.
I do understand why it has been given so much attention in the western, northern media.
It was horrific.
It’s close to home.
It concerns freedom of expression and religious tolerance.
It’s reportedly the work of terrorists. (Though here I side with the commentator who suggested that these men be called murderers – in one simple word detaching them from Muslims everywhere, whether they sympathise with the killers or – more important – whether they do not.)
We proles can’t take too much death or too many refugees – literally in the latter instance in Britain’s case. So I also understand that some big things, like Syria, will always slip from the news.
But, ‘as many as’ 2000 people driven from their homes and killed?
Probably 219 girls held captive by Boko Haram?
In the wake of Peterloo a new newspaper was founded. A newspaper that told the truths other media – controlled by the frightened authorities and upper classes hundreds of miles away in London – would not.
That newspaper was the Manchester Guardian.
The Manchester Guardian is now just the Guardian – and has its feet firmly cemented in London.
But at least it can still muster the humanity to cover the massacre of 2000 (or so, who’s counting?) far away at a time when we also mourn the sixteen, close at hand.
*More about Peterloo:
The plaque: http://openplaques.org/plaques/768
The words of the Oldham Tinkers’ song, Peterloo, give you a simple locally expressed snapshot of what it was all about, here’s a link to their website and the lyrics and a You Tube of a performance: