There are obvious reasons why Ukraine has received more coverage than other conflicts happening around the world. Russia is a nuclear-armed superpower for one. The invasion threatens to draw in neighbouring European countries and escalate into a global conflict. It is also exacerbating the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Even without those, it is not morally wrong to be more concerned about a conflict close to home. That’s a natural and rational reaction.
But Ukraine is not the only significant conflict. Ethiopia’s, for example, has none of the above fallout for non-Ethiopians. And yet. Ethiopia has had numerous Buchas during its now 17-month-long conflict. During two days in November 2020, it’s estimated that hundreds of unarmed civilians were systematically killed by Eritrean troops in the holy city of Axum. An estimated 250 civilians were killed over three days in the town of Humera early in 2021. Given that, and the scale of the inverse relationship between the magnitude of suffering in Ethiopia and the minimal coverage and engagement by the international community, it is hard not to conclude that something is awry.
It’s estimated that the number of lives lost from Ethiopia’s conflict could now be 500,000, according to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium who have followed the conflict since it began in November 2020. The figure takes into consideration direct killings (50,000 to 100,000 victims), starvation (150,000 to 200,000 victims) and lack of access to healthcare (causing 100,000 additional deaths) brought about by the conflict as the international community failed to act.
Then there is the horrific sexual violence that has occurred, with rape used as a weapon of war, including forced incestuous rape. This has garnered some media coverage but gained little traction — certainly in terms of impacting public mood or galvanising the body politic—compared to coverage of Ukrainian women forced to leave homes clutching the hands of their children and reports of Russian soldiers raping Ukrainian women.
“The ‘unthinkable things’ that happen in places like Africa are typically reported in terms of issues, number and trends—rather than the people, the emotions and the lives destroyed,” Moky Makura of Africa No Filter, a group that works to develop nuance and dispel stereotypical and harmful narratives about Africa, writes in a recent opinion piece for CNN.
This dynamic goes beyond skin colour — as Jews know only too well. When I was hiking my Camino through Spain, in stunning cities I kept encountering former Jewish quarters. No one leaves a home and community, with everything they have invested into it, on a whim. Especially if it is usually an en-masse response to intimidation or direct violence, as Ethiopians and Ukrainians are experiencing now. But also, as in the 16th century with those Jewish communities, methods of communication either do not exist that will focus on the injustice, or as today choose to ignore it — which means few feel empowered enough to react (rather than look the other way).
Writing in The Media Monopoly, the Armenian-American journalist and academic Ben Bagdikian — who survived the Armenian genocide as a child — argues that the institutional bias of the media “does not merely protect the corporate system. It robs the public of a chance to understand the real world.”
Hence the catastrophe continues unchecked — as has been allowed to happen time and again. But the media can’t take all the blame. The dearth of compassionate engagement, which seems an increasing hallmark of the modern age, must have something to do with what the Austrian thinker and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl called “the existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time…a private and personal form of nihilism”. The explosion of the internet and its capabilities now drenching our brains in more information than our neurons can handle — much of it baffling and depressing — isn’t helping.
“In public and in private life, it often happens that there is simply no time to collect the relevant facts or to weigh their significance,” Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World Revisited, his 1958 analysis of how much of his 1932 classic dystopian rendering had come to pass. “All that is in our power is to be as truthful and rational as circumstances permit us to be, and to respond as well as we can to the limited truth and imperfect reasonings offered for our consideration by others.”
James Jeffrey is a former army officer @jrfjeffrey