Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria
Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria. (Photo credit: Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu 2024)

The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The Burden of Bearing Witness

Last month, I walked away from an important story that needed to be told. I was in the field in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, where the over-a-decade-old Boko Haram insurgency has caused immeasurable devastation to lives and properties. I was walking out of a camp for internally displaced persons on the outskirts of the city, alongside a prominent member of the camp, when I came upon a woman with crutches.

I weighed the information he had just given me against the recent strain of my passion for my work, and I made the decision to walk away from it. I did not think my heart and spirit would be able to take the full story without breaking. That night, I struggled to sleep.

My companion pointed to her and said to me, “That lady, once there was a military officer who came every day to rape her because he knew she could not run away because of her disability. We had to intervene before it stopped.”

It is possible that I have come across more devastating and heartless stories than this since I started conflict reporting years ago; my memory fails me now, perhaps also because I am actively trying not to think about it. But that tip hit me with a force that knocked me right out of my mind. He wanted me to tell the story; perhaps the reportage might bring the woman some measure of justice, and if not, her story would still be an important one to document. He was right. Journalism is the only medium through which people like that woman could ever speak. I weighed the information he had just given me against the recent strain of my passion for my work, and I made the decision to walk away from it. I did not think my heart and spirit would be able to take the full story without breaking. That night, I struggled to sleep.

 

Reevaluating the Role of Conflict Reporting

“If we don’t tell our stories, others will, and they will tell it wrong.”

This happened at a time when I had begun to ask myself serious and uncomfortable questions about the work that I was doing. What is the value of conflict reporting? What is the value of this reportage, especially in the face of the enormousness of conflict and war? There are over 350,000 lives that have been lost to the Boko Haram crisis. Over 3 million more people in Nigeria have been displaced, too. What was I doing thinking I could make a difference by telling the stories of a few of those people? What value did it ever bring? What did it matter in the grand scheme of things? And so when I saw and heard about that crippled woman, I walked away.

I keep pitching the sheer enormity of this insurgency against the very, very little work we’re doing, and I feel there is little to no value at all to it in the face of that comparison

It isn’t lost on me that these questions can only come out of a disillusioned and fatigued mind. I have always said that journalism is important, even if the only thing it achieves is to serve as a tool for documenting history. Suppose your work pops up in a Google search when, years from now, an academic or even a curious person is researching how people survived in these times, then your work as a journalist is done. I have always said this. But lately, it doesn’t feel enough.

I spoke to a dear friend and coworker about my feelings of disillusionment. “I keep pitching the sheer enormity of this insurgency against the very, very little work we’re doing, and I feel there is little to no value at all to it in the face of that comparison,” I told him.

“The thing is... Our job isn't to fight the insurgency, H,” he said to me. “It's never been. It's to document it. And if in that process, some or many people suffer less (as often does happen, even if we don't always see the full picture), then we count ourselves lucky to have contributed to that outcome.”

His words were wise and true. They are also words I have said to myself many times in the past. It reminded me of the period I made the decision to do conflict reporting full-time. Before then, I had mostly been a poet. I was fresh out of law school and back in my parents’ home in Niger State, North-central Nigeria. And in the news, various terror attacks by the Boko Haram terror group were being reported in the state. It was terrifying. The state capital, where I lived with my family, was swelling with people who had been displaced from rural villages. I started off volunteering with a humanitarian organisation to provide and distribute aid to displaced people. Then, I started to document the things I was seeing. It was born out of the fear that if we did not tell our stories, no one else would. This thought was reinforced when I later met my now employer, who presented me with an even more scary but probable thought: “If we don’t tell our stories, others will, and they will tell it wrong.”

I thought obsessively, like most human beings in the world have been doing, about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza; how thoroughly it is being documented by its journalists and even ordinary citizens, how evidence of the atrocity has been diligently documented on social media, in videos, in reports. And how so little that has meant for accountability.

When I returned to Abuja three weeks ago, those depressing questions weighed me down so heavily and so frequently that I struggled to find light. I sat at my desk for hours, clicking away, opening and closing documents that needed to be edited, and being unproductive. I thought obsessively, like most human beings in the world have been doing, about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza; how thoroughly it is being documented by its journalists and even ordinary citizens, how evidence of the atrocity has been diligently documented on social media, in videos, in reports. And how so little that has meant for accountability. In fact, over 110 journalists have been killed by the crisis.

As things continued to get worse, I googled ‘the importance of conflict reporting’ and found nothing of note. The results that popped up ranged from ethics of conflict reporting and how to do conflict reporting. Never why.

Eventually, I had to take a few days off work as I found myself being swallowed by the bleak realities.

 

the field in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria

 

The "Privilege" of Documenting Tragedy

As I worked out in the gym two weeks after that Maiduguri trip, precisely on Feb. 24th, I received a message from someone reminding me that it was exactly ten years since the tragic Buni Yadi massacre. The massacre, which took place in 2014 by terrorists belonging to Boko Haram, remains one of the most tragic and senseless acts of war since the group broke out in 2009. They threw balls of fire under the beds as teenage schoolboys slept. They then positioned themselves at doors and windows and shot those who tried to escape. Those who made it into the school compound were slaughtered. Some accounts say up to 59 schoolboys died. This is possible, but I could only trace and verify the names of 29 boys.

late 2022, I started the long task of tracking down the families of the boys who died, as well as the boys who survived. I went from Potiskum, to Damagum, to Damaturu, to Bauchi to Maiduguri in search of these people over the course of two months. The result was a series of reports attempting to document the tragedy from multiple and holistic angles.

As I read that message about the anniversary, I remembered Mustapha, fondly called Musty by his mother, who was killed by a bullet to the thigh. I remembered Adamu, who was burned to death and buried with neither of his parents present. I remembered Mohammed, who survived a bullet to the neck and who, to this day, has not recovered from the trauma.

Besides the Wikipedia entry about the massacre, I realised that my reportage on the tragedy years after it occurred remains the only extensive source of information about what happened, how it happened, and what the aftermath was. I know because during my research phase before I went to the field, I tried to lay my hands on any reports about it. Besides very brief and often inaccurate news reports, I found nothing. I also know because all the people I spoke to on the field said they were speaking to the media for the first time.

I googled ‘Buni Yadi Massacre’, and my reports poured out right after the Wikipedia entry. The realisation that I had been privileged to document those stories hit me in a way that nearly moved me to tears. Because it is a privilege. I got off the treadmill and sat somewhere. As I scrolled through the reports again, the word privilege kept echoing over and over in my mind. The lack of tangible impact does not equal unimportance. To be able to help thousands of people remember, to articulate the lives and circumstances of victims of war who have no other means of being remembered, is a privilege.

I know from current experience how possible it is to look away, to choose to walk away in an attempt to care for oneself. I also knew how difficult and arduous the task was to unearth victims of something as devastating as the Buni Yadi massacre and to sit with them and have them trust me with their grief.

the field in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria

 

The Enduring Importance of Conflict Journalism

My work, the work of all conflict reporters, is not only of history but of devotion. It is as important as air is to the lungs. Because a society that cannot remember its tragedies, that does not have a reliable way of doing so, is not one worth living in. Because of conflict reporting, there will never be a shortage of information and resources on what’s going on in Gaza, or how the Boko Haram insurgency in Africa has destroyed lives, familial bonds, and property.

Conflict reporting makes it impossible for societies to feign ignorance of the violence done to them.

 

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance.

 

More Articles

Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram
Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023
Reporter’s Notebook - what I learned from covering the Kalash people

As journalists, our fascination with Indigenous communities can blind us to our ethical obligations to respect privacy and dignity of those we document - we must reflect carefully

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 5 Oct, 2023