It took almost three weeks, but the world finally woke up to the tragedy unfolding in Nigeria, where a band of ultra-radical Islamist terrorists kidnapped more than 300 school girls and disappeared with them into the forest.
If anyone had any doubt about the sheer malevolence of the captors, the group known as Boko Haram, it all vanished when the group’s leader, Abubakr Shekau, released a video in which he declared, “Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell the women.”
Shekau and his gang of radicals want to impose an Islamist caliphate in Nigeria, ruled by their twisted version of Islamic law, Sharia. The name of the group, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin.” By their interpretation of what is right and what is wrong, a modern education is a sin, but kidnapping human beings, and selling girls — most likely into sexual slavery — is somehow acceptable.
The weeks since the terrorists grabbed the girls from their school dormitories have presented the world with the sharp outlines of contrasting human morality. We have seen heroes and villains, and we may yet see martyrs. In addition, we have seen a transformation in which the ranks of the heroes have been growing.
The evidence of courage begins with the girls. They knew that going to school was extremely risky. Boko Haram has killed thousands over the last few years. But these girls were fighting to receive a real education. What the radicals consider “Western” is simply an education that teaches something more than memorizing scriptures. And it’s no wonder. In his wildly rambling video, Shekau declared, “Girls, you should go and get married.”
Next on the ranks of heroes are the girls’ families, particularly their mothers, who took on the government and challenged the world’s conscience when no one seemed terribly concerned about the fate of the girls.
Dozens of the kidnapped girls managed to escape, telling horrifying stories about their ordeal.
In a country where public demonstrations are not a common occurrence, the families took to the streets, took to Twitter and Facebook, rallied support around the world and managed to bring pressure to bear on the country’s government, on a president who had not even spoken publicly about the mass kidnapping for weeks after it occurred.
The families’ activism helped reverse the apathy of the international community. One of the many disturbing aspects of this sordid event is the extent to which it was ignored by the international media, by diplomats and by the public at large.
While there seemed to be a bottomless amount of resources and attention for the story of the missing Malaysian plane and the South Korean ferry disaster, the girls, whose lives were — are — still at stake, barely qualified as an afterthought.
That has now changed. The entire world has risen to the occasion. International attention has put pressure on the Nigerian government and on President Goodluck Jonathan. It is still unclear what precisely the government is doing, but there is no doubt that the atmosphere surrounding the case has changed.
As I write this, four weeks into this tragedy, the international public and even the global media have, to a large extent redeemed themselves. The drama of the missing Nigerian high school students is on everyone’s mind, and the concern is translating into action. That, of course, doesn’t erase the earlier failures.
The early days of captivity would have made for a much-easier tracking and rescue operation. Now the Nigerian government says it doesn’t know where the girls are, although a new video from Boko Haram purports to show dozens of them, covered in jihab and praying in Arabic.
Some may have already been scattered to neighboring countries, perhaps already sold. Some may never be reached.
If they are rescued, the girls will become symbols of hope for Nigeria’s future.
We have not seen the final act of this drama. Let’s hope the government does what it takes so that all Nigerians can be proud of them; so the government can join the girls in becoming heroes in a story with a happy ending.
Frida Ghitis writes about world affairs for the Miami Herald, CNN.Com, World Politics Review, and others. She is a former CNN producer and correspondent.