| Kevin Sieff |
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (WP-BLOOM) – To find Andrew Kondoh, walk through the gates of this city’s largest cemetery, where teams in moonsuits bury more than 50 bodies in white plastic bags each day. Look for the man with the wispy goatee and big belly, who is overseeing one of the world’s most chaotic, dangerous graveyards as if he’s done it all before.
That’s because he has.
Twenty years ago, when he was 13, Kondoh took it upon himself to guard a heap of bodies, people killed by rebels during the country’s civil war. For three years, as the pile grew, he protected them from being trampled or picked at by dogs.When that conflict ended, Kondoh made a promise to himself. He was done working with the dead.
Then Ebola surged in Sierra Leone.
“It’s like I’m back there again,” Kondoh said. “Except this time I don’t see the faces in the body bags. I just imagine them.” In Sierra Leone, war forms the silent backdrop to the country’s newest tragedy. It was war that destroyed the nation’s infrastructure, leaving behind a decrepit medical system. It drove away the doctors. But it also produced resilient men and women like Kondoh, who have felt compelled to act as the death toll mounts.
The fighting started in 1991, when Kondoh was 11, and ended when he was 22. Rebels swept through the country, murdering civilians, raping women and abducting children. The army pushed back, committing its own horrific abuses, as diamond mining rights hung in the balance. Somewhere between 10,000 to 50,000 people were killed.
In the eastern district of Kenema, rebels killed suspected government sympathizers and left the corpses. The military eventually picked them up. Without a functioning cemetery, soldiers dumped the bodies in an alley, near a shuttered mortuary. From his house, 400 yards away, Kondoh watched them decompose. He saw people step over them.
He couldn’t take it. Kondoh stole some rope that his father, a butcher, used to hang cuts of meat. He created a makeshift barrier around the bodies. He started spending his days manning the area, a teenage watchman.
“It wasn’t just about respect, it was that I worried about disease and infection spreading,” he said. He was concerned that the militants would get angry at him. He’d seen how they would grab children, chop off their arms and then release them, just to demonstrate their military power. But when the fighters saw Kondoh, they only chuckled and shook their heads, he remembers, exclaiming, “Hey, Mr Christmas!” – a reference to his Santa Claus-like belly.
He recruited other boys to join him. All of them became accustomed to the sight of dead bodies; how some looked almost serene and others barely human. Even so, sometimes the emotion broke through.
“When I saw kids or pregnant women, it was just too much,” Kondoh said. “I can tell you that our war – it was the worst war in the history of the entire world.”
When it ended, the leaders of the fighting forces were tried. The mortuary reopened. Kondoh went to high school. He got a job at an Internet cafe and then an aid organization. He met his wife. They had a baby boy. The economy started improving. The dying was over, Kondoh told himself.
In May, Ebola came to Sierra Leone. In September, he saw a posting for a “Burial Welfare Supervisor.” He sent in his résumé.
“It’s not something I wanted to do again,” Kondoh said. “But I felt I needed to be on the front line.”
A new horror is unfolding amid the reminders of the old one. More than 1,600 Sierra Leoneans have died from Ebola. Organizations like UNICEF, which once tended to orphans of war, now care for orphans of Ebola-stricken parents. Soldiers enforce quarantines at homes and man checkpoints. But these days, they wield thermometers instead of guns.
The National Ebola Response Center was created in a modern compound atop a hill in Freetown. Until 2012, it had been the Special Court for Sierra Leone, established by the United Nations to try rebels, soldiers and others for war atrocities. Now, in the former courtroom, British, American and Sierra Leonean officials review daily fatality counts projected onto a big screen. They hurry past old jail cells on their way to meetings. In unused offices, long-forgotten court documents are spread across tables.
“Right over there is where we tried men for the worst atrocities,” said Palo Conteh, the head of the response center, pointing toward the courtroom 20 yards from his office. “And now we’re here waging a much different war.”
Burials in Sierra Leone typically involve large gatherings in which relatives and friends wash, touch and kiss the bodies of the deceased. Such actions are seen as a critical way to show respect. But they also hasten the spread of the disease, as Ebola victims are at their most infectious immediately after death. Fifty to 70 percent of Ebola cases stem from traditional burials, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In August, to stop the chain of transmission, the government of Sierra Leone mandated that all of the deceased be buried as if they had Ebola – in body bags and by teams in protective gear. Families can attend the ceremonies, but they can’t go near the dead.
Kondoh started the job in September, as Ebola centers in Freetown began to overflow. He didn’t tell any of 220 people whom he managed about his past job and the makeshift graveyard. At times, he forgot about it himself. “But when the bodies would come in decomposed, when I smelled them . . . “ Kondoh said, his voice trailing off. “It was just like, ‘bam.’ “
People here still remember how during the war the dead were left to rot, or were sometimes incinerated in mass cremations. Such treatment of corpses was deeply painful to the victims’ relatives.
Today, families sometimes attack burial team members whom they see as disrupting their religious practice and attempts at closure. Five of the trucks that Kondoh’s teams use have been damaged by angry mourners.
Kondoh comforts grieving families, assuring them that they are invited to attend the burials, as long as they cover their shoes with garbage bags and stay far from the graves.
“No matter how careful we are, it’s a shocking experience for families,” said Fiona McLysaght, the country director for Ireland-based Concern Worldwide, Kondoh’s employer. “Andrew is able to navigate his way around these complex issues.”
Kondoh’s days are a blur. He races across Freetown behind an ambulance. He checks for holes in his team’s protective gear. He makes sure the Christians are buried in coffins and the Muslims are buried under a stack of wooden sticks, as the religions demand here.
He looks for signs that his colleagues – many of them in their late teens and early 20s – might be depressed or sick. He roughhouses with them, and lets them rub his belly. “When he sees you’re looking sad, he comes over and asks, ‘How you doing, man?’ “ said Mamadou Jallah, a member of the burial team. “He’s like a brother.”
Kondoh’s wife, Basasatu, makes him change his clothes before coming inside their home. She knows he is at high risk of contracting Ebola. Before the outbreak, Kondoh was trying to set up a charity to promote children’s rights. But his job has cost him access to his own son, Andrew. Last month, his wife moved the boy to her sister’s house. Kondoh still sneaks in to see him.
One day last month, he travelled with a team to pick up a body. It was at a community center, and the family had gathered inside to pray. When the ambulance arrived, they started wailing. He tried to console them while keeping his distance.
“All these people could have it. There’s no way to know for sure,” he said, weaving through the mass of mourners. But the situation only grew more tense. A woman fainted next to Kondoh, almost landing on him. Other relatives started shouting that the dead woman was pregnant and had died in childbirth. No one wanted to admit that she had Ebola.