10 Nov 2014

Devil Hole Junction, where people go when they get Ebola

There is the 117 hotline to call. There are at least some Ebola-dedicated clinics across the country. But there were also 111 new cases in Sierra Leone just yesterday. That tells its own story. It is the highest figure for some time.

On the busy streets of Freetown – now probably the worst affected area of the country – large posters proclaim in Creole: “If you lek me no touch me”.

But everywhere you look, that is coming up against the reality of lovers, people handing money to each other, people crammed against one another on buses or in queues… and against fear, panic and ignorance.

So this morning we head for a place ahead of the authorities. A place where Ebola plays lethal cat and mouse with the chasing Sierra Leonean medics, officials and international NGOs.

Yesterday, a desperate appeal from headteacher  Alphonsus Kangbo, from the village of Kwama, reaches me via Scotiaaid, the Glasgow-based NGO:

“My brother,  Kwama is in (sic) fire again, four deaths took place this afternoon. I am calling on 117 to assist to pick up the bodies. The whole village of 1670 people which is 199 households is going to be quarantined for 21 days. Government will not come in immediately to aid  these people with food. My brother, please help us. It is desperate.”

Before we even get there this morning, on the main road east of the capital into the jungle, we find Osman Gbondo, lying under a tree at the roadside. He is dead.

One of Osman’s three wives, Aminata, lies dying, 200 metres away, blood oozing from her mouth, too weak to drink the bottled water we have.

We are in Devil Hole Junction, less than an hour’s drive outside Freetown. And I stand here, taking all this in, wondering how many more Devil Hole Junctions there are across Sierra Leone this morning.

Osman’s body was carried here, villagers tell us, by at least two men with no protective suits or masks or anything at all. They have now fled in fear of the authorities and being quarantined. They are likely to be infected.

Several other people lie prostrate on the ground in this village, weak and red eyed. Villagers reassure them that help is on its way – but in truth they do  not know if it is.

People here dialled 117 several hours ago but no help has come. People here have no protective equipment. There are no anti-infection protocols in place. It is chaos.

Osman and Aminata fled to Devil Hole Junction when they became ill, from their village close to the British Kerry Town Ebola hospital. Once sick, moving away to friends and relatives rather than going to a clinic remains a common – and often fatal – response, no matter how irrational it might seem.

A mile up the road towards Kwana, there is a roadblock where people line up to pass the temperature-takers. Across the road there, blue tarpaulin tents house four sick people.

They called 117 yesterday but they have not been moved. A further 16 are in the village, also ill. They tried to get them to Jui and Hastings treatment centres. They sent them back saying they have no room.

So finally Alphonsus takes us into Kwama. The places is deserted. Everyone is already observing home quarantine for 21 days after four people arrived here from the Port Loko area and died yesterday afternoon.

To make that journey they would have had to elude the quarantine roadblocks all around the Port Loko area.

Mercifully Alphonsus – a headteacher at the village school – and other village leaders were on these cases fast. He says nobody touched these people, either as they became feverish or when the succumbed.

So Kwama may seem like a ghost-village but at least they have some organisation of the situation.

Down the road in Devil Hole the situation – Ebola – is making all the running in terrifying fashion.

We pass through, heading back to Freetown. Osman’s body is now in a Red Cross vehicle and bodybagged. Amanita still lies next to it, writhing and bleeding. It is 10 past one. They’ve been calling 117 for someone to get her to hospital, since seven this morning.

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