Monrovia at war: Hope amid the horror

2014-11-02 15:00

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It takes a gruelling four flights and two days to get to Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia.

There are only two airlines still flying into Liberia, and Ebola’s epicentre is all but cut off from the rest of the world.

At the arrivals area in Monrovia, the compulsory hand-washing with chlorinated water and mandatory temperature checks begin.

It becomes a comforting ritual: the reek of chlorine representing the smell of safety and survival.

As with most things in life, the fear of covering the Ebola outbreak was far worse than actually being there and doing it.

But you can’t let your guard down, not for one second. Ebola is an unforgiving virus. It preys on weakness: a lapse of concentration during which you touch your face or, exhausted, rub your eyes; a natural act of warmth when you absent-mindedly reach out to shake someone’s hand.

Life was hard enough in Liberia before Ebola showed up. The country survived years of civil war and its health system was already dysfunctional.

A quick walk around the capital city makes it clear there is no infrastructure here. Schools and universities are closed as per government orders, and there’s speculation education could grind to a halt for up to a year.

Fear and denial

Farmers are fleeing their lands and now the threat of famine looms.

Aid and international support continue to trickle in. The US is running an impressive mission in Liberia, which has set up mobile labs and will build more treatment centres.

But it’s not even nearly enough.

Ebola is aggressive and rampant. It thrives on poverty and ignorance. I attended the burial in rural Liberia of a man whose sister and mother had recently died of Ebola. But his family told me he “just dropped dead” and that “there was nothing wrong with him”. They insisted he didn’t have Ebola. Denial is everywhere, perhaps because of the way the disease plays out, as if it is almost too unbearable to contemplate.

An American charity worker said people were not just dying of Ebola: “They are dying of hopelessness, of loneliness, of despair.”

Sufferers are isolated and denied human contact. At another burial, we shouted our questions to the grieving family. It lacked compassion, but it was essential for everyone’s safety that we kept our distance.

The grieving villagers stayed well back while a burial team wrapped the body in double layers of chlorinated, protective gear and interred it.

The dead man’s sister knelt outside a mud hut, her hands outstretched, wailing. She wasn’t even able to have a last glimpse of her brother before he was dumped in the ground.

His name was Felicifa Chepus. He was the village’s coal carrier. He was just 22.


Ebola’s victims are at their most contagious after death. Chepus’ body had clearly been prepared before the burial team arrived, but nobody would admit it.

In Liberia, there’s a culture of bathing and dressing the dead in finery in preparation for their burial.

In Monrovia itself, the government has ordered that all bodies be cremated, but some residents are unhappy with this. An official told us it’s likely the capital will return to contained, sanitised burials soon. For now, the city is lit up each night by an unnatural orange glow from the crematoriums.

There is hope amid the horror. Ordinary Liberians are doing amazing work to protect and care for each other. Diana Sarteh is the head nurse at JFK’s 35-bed Ebola unit. Each day, Sarteh leaves her three children – the youngest, Anniesithu, is only four years old – to work with highly contagious patients. She and her colleagues insert intravenous drips, draw blood and clean up vomit and faeces.

“Even though it is dangerous, I took an oath to save lives,” she says.

When she dons her potentially life-saving protective gear, she thinks of her children and reminds herself to dress slowly and carefully. She must not lose concentration. That could be deadly.

These stories abound: a mother who refused to let her child die alone and deliberately risked infection to hold her; a daughter who nursed her dying father because she could not imagine the man who had done so much for her being denied love and warmth. There’s a young student who works on a burial team so she can pay her school fees.

And there are the survivors who have become immune to the disease and are volunteering to step in and take care of Ebola’s orphans. They can pick up and cuddle these children who crave love.

Now that I’m home, I take my temperature twice a day and will do so for three weeks. The disease has a two- to 21-day incubation period.

My work has always carried an element of risk, but for the first time I could potentially have brought that risk home to my children.

As correspondents, we are used to covering war zones, but this was an assignment like no other. The killer is silent and invisible. You don’t know when it could attack – and when you leave the battlefields, you might carry the killer away with you.

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