Abbas Dulleh / AP

No escape from quarantined neighborhood as Ebola anger boils over

Police commissioner urges West Point residents to stay calm and cooperate with health workers

MONROVIA, Liberia — Thirty members of the police support unit stood stone-faced and dressed in riot gear in a desolate Waterside General Market on Wednesday. Police with machine guns and a couple of soldiers had sealed off the entrance to the West Point neighborhood with a makeshift checkpoint that was battered earlier in the day, the razor wire stripped of its razor.

“We are preparing for the worst-case scenario tonight and tomorrow morning,” the commander said. He told the officers to stock up on food for their families. “We don’t want to have enough security tonight and then tomorrow morning the team goes and we can’t handle it.”

Early Wednesday morning West Pointers woke up and learned the government had quarantined them in their community for 21 days. The government cited high levels of Ebola infection as well as denial, although the Ministry of Health has yet to produce data.

Calm returned on Thursday, but the previous weekend, some residents stormed and looted a makeshift holding center for Ebola patients and set them free. People surrounded the office of town commissioner Miatta Flowers, who had to be escorted out by police. They were angry that they hadn’t been consulted about the holding center and that outsiders who could be infected were being held there.

Fatu Turo was holed up in her home in West Point with her friend’s toddler as the police and military moved through to calm the situation. “They put us in jail,” she said. “We can’t go in the market anymore. There is no Ebola in West Point. If your head is hurting and you die, they say Ebola.”

We can’t go in the market anymore. There is no Ebola in West Point. If your head is hurting and you die, they say Ebola.

Fatu Turo

West Point resident

Yesterday many residents became enraged again when Flowers and her family were escorted out by a joint security team made up of army, police, immigration, the fire service and the National Security Agency. 

As she was escorted out, the crowd threw rocks at the security and surged forward to try to escape. Soldiers who had been called in for backup fired live rounds into the air to deter the crowd. Three men were injured, among them 15-year-old Shakie Kamara, whose leg was gushing blood and hanging from the muscle. He cried in pain as he asked for medication, sleeping tablets and help. Soldiers on the scene claimed he’d tripped over barbed wire. He was later aided by a military medic and taken away in an ambulance run by a local representative in the Liberian legislature.

Kamara died Wednesday night at Redemption Hospital. Dr. Mohammed Sankoh, medical director for the hospital, said all three of the injured men suffered bullet wounds. 

“Those soldiers are under orders from this point. No decision on the use of those weapons against any person can be issued without any clear instructions from the commander in chief to the minister of defense and through the chain of command of the Armed Forces of Liberia,” said Minister of Defense Brownie J. Samukai at a press conference. “Once again I want to make it very clear that the Armed Forces of Liberia has not been issued orders of shoot to kill anybody out there at this point in time.”

Liberia's police director Chris Massaquoi toured the community with police Wednesday evening and called on people to calm down and assured them that food aid and a medical team would be dispatched shortly.

“If you act hostile, the health workers will be scared to come in here,” he told a crowd of people on the main road running through West Point. “If you calm down and go into your various places and go into your homes, the team is going to come. They are going to move around and have all of you tested. But if you start standing on the road putting up roadblocks and things, they will not come, and I can guarantee you we will not allow you to leave from here if health workers do not come.” 

On Thursday, police holding rattan sticks maintained a line of hundreds of people waiting for food aid. Government workers dipped the fingers of residents in blue ink and handed out bags of rice to be divided among four people. A crowd of young men yelled and pushed forward. Police beat them with rattan sticks.

Aminatta Zakari, 27, stood at the front of the line. She has two young daughters and sells street food.

“It’s embarrassing us. I can’t do my business,” she said. “We are so confused.”

Patience Kamara, 8-months pregnant with a pink lapa tied around her waist, carried a bucket for oil and beans.

“I didn’t eat anything yesterday,” she said, and complained about the quality of the rice, describing it as “dirty.”

“We’ve not got Ebola," she said. "Come and check for the Ebola people and carry them. Free us.” 

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