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Despite being ‘Ebola-free,’ Liberia communities still fight its legacy

Though immediate threat of outbreak is largely history, villages confront blame game

Liberia lost more than 4,800 people, including 189 health workers, in the devastating Ebola epidemic.

“This is Ebola situation report on Radio Gbarnga. This is where you get the latest updates about the Ebola situation in central Liberia,” said Jefferson Massah, in an exceptionally calming voice for such a catastrophic time.

“You have invaded our houses. You have killed our children. You have killed our fathers. You have killed our mothers,” sang a pop artist, in local dialect, to a catchy beat. “And you are still not satisfied?”

The year was 2014, and the threat from the disease was immediate. Liberia was ground zero of an unprecedented epidemic, under attack by a virus that left 5,000 dead by autumn and eventually killed over 11,000 people across West Africa.

Although the region was declared Ebola-free (despite several new cases) earlier this month, the trauma experienced in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia has had a massive impact. Cities and towns across the most affected areas continue to suffer from the emotional scars of the disease, with people blaming one another for failing to prevent the huge toll. Many orphans, widows and widowers struggle to emerge from the lingering health crisis.

Now a new documentary airing Sunday on Al Jazeera is exploring the path of the disease, revealing the depths of the crisis and the human stories behind the epidemic.

Stanley Juah, from Taylor Town, a small rural village in Liberia, is a man left alone after his wife, Mammie, and their four children died. When he visited their burial site in an isolated forest clearing, having just been released from an Ebola treatment unit, it was his first time looking at the final resting place for his entire immediate family.

He wept upon seeing the flimsy grave markers identifying his wife and children, with “sunset” indicated as November 2014, when they died.

“You can't stay here, Stanley,” health worker Wehaty Sangalaine told him. “You said you wanted to see the place, then we brought you here. You have seen it. It will take some time for you to get through.” 

But Juah has an even bigger problem. In addition to his family’s deaths, more than a dozen other Ebola victims in Bong County can be traced to his bad decision to take his sick son to Taylor Town from Monrovia. People from the village have threatened him, and he’s scared to go there.

“Ebola has taken everyone away,” said health worker Mabel Musa. “Some people get very afraid. You find children in the towns with no parents because Ebola has killed their mother, their father.”

Juah said his son had no symptoms and so he shouldn’t be blamed — or killed by vigilantes — for violating the area’s quarantine order and spreading the disease. But the villagers are furious.

“What Stanley Juah has done here, he has done it to the district, to Bong County and everyone in Liberia. Because for every person that has died, his future has died as well,” said Augustus Sumu. “This person could have become president, or his child could have become president. So what Stanley did here, he did to the whole world.”

The Rev. Victor Padmore was called to calm the situation and intervened to protect Juah. “We cannot continue to let the issue of hate, the sense of hate, remain in the community, because that’s Stanley’s home,” Padmore said. And some of the locals heed his call for reconciliation, despite Juah’s refusal to admit wrongdoing.

“Stanley has killed so many of us. If he comes back and we kill him, it will not bring back our dead,” said Siaka Goakai, a Taylor Town resident. “So let him come to see for himself what good he has done.”

Padmore said that his goal is to continue engaging the people who are angry at Juah. “Calm down, take a good heart, be able to talk to other people who feel bad about what has happened,” said Padmore. “Other people who are blaming us, we need to go back to them and say, along with our son Stanley, and say, ‘We are sorry.’ Let this thing go. We all belong here.”

The town’s capacity to forgive seems to grow as the number of new cases drops and sick people begin to heal. In a nearby treatment center, women began dancing and chanting to celebrate the progress.

Padmore’s role was crucial in the long journey toward normality for the community. “There is still hope,” he said. “So we come today to sit together with you people. We want to hear what you think. We came also with Stanley, who, after hearing you, has one or two words to say. We will continue from there. We are also here to help you to be able to jump over what has happened.”

Stanley Juah is one of more than 5,000 people who survived the Ebola virus in Liberia.

Yet the villagers don’t agree on what Juah’s fate should be. “I am going to see Stanley and [if] he doesn’t kill me, I am going to kill him,” said one man at the village reconciliation forum arranged by Padmore.

Another man, Warner Fedju, chimed in. He used to be Juah’s best friend. But now Fedju, having lost his wife to Ebola, claimed Juah is cursed and is a liar. Despite his anger, Fedju said, “If I [did] something to you, Stanley, it will not bring my woman back to life. She has already died.”

“So I got nothing to do with you, Stanley,” he continued. “You are forgiven.”

Although Ebola took more lives in Liberia than anywhere else, the country was the first to become officially free from the disease — that is, until three new cases were announced in November 2015. The epidemic was said to be finished, for the third time, on Jan. 14. The good news didn’t last long, as a new case was identified a day later in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Liberia lost more than 4,800 people to the disease, including 189 health workers, so the pain runs deep. And it’s not easy for a man like Juah to show remorse when he too experienced such tragedy along with the entire nation.

“Stanley, this is your place. These people, you should respect them,” Padmore said. “You know, in our culture, if you ask for forgiveness, you must be on your knees. You can’t stand tall.”

After heeding the reverend’s call to repent, Juah was overcome by despair.

“I lost all my children and my wife. I can’t sit in that empty house. I can only be a visitor here,” he said. “No need to live. I just should die and follow my people. I don’t know why God has spared my life.”

Watch the film on TV, learn more on the website, visit the Facebook page and explore the interactive below.


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