Girls Seek Refuge Amongst the Dead After Ebola

13/07/2016 15:28 | Updated 13 July 2016

Image: Chloe with Margaret. Photo credit: John Alevroyiannis

It's 3pm in central Monrovia, Liberia. Crowds of noisy, staggering men congregate around the outside of a collapsing, rotten three story building in the drizzling rain.

As the charity's battered 4x4 pulls up a little closer and I jump down the men come nearer, they are all high on a concoction of heroin and cocaine. One pulls a machete out of the sack of belongings he is dragging across the filthy, wet street and charges towards another, both men stumbling, both yelling. I'm not sure how much intent there was to harm anyone but Street Child's team of social workers decided now wasn't the time to visit Monrovia's most notorious ghetto, hidden inside the capital's sprawling disused cemetery.

Street Child learned that there has been an increase in children turning to the cemetery community for protection after they lost their parents in the recent Ebola outbreak. These orphans are seeking refuge from the harsh realities of the streets amongst its tombs. We went to visit to understand what help can be offered.

Having negotiated safer access for 6.30am the following morning we returned as the sun was coming up. There were still men lingering, high from the night before, but under the watchful eye of Nancy Williams we were able to enter. Nancy lives next door in the drug shack but is clean herself and runs the local shop. Everyone respected the instructions she yelled and allowed us to pass.

Like a scene from a horror film, rows and rows of decaying, above-ground, tombs have been swamped by weeds, the ground between them deep with mud, litter and broken glass.

In my flip flops, Nancy helped me up onto the edge of the first tomb, a meter above the ground, we carefully balanced and jumped our way across them into the cemetery's centre. Along the way she pointed to the tombs where there were children sleeping inside and to the tent-like structures that house dozens of people sleeping in lines on the mouldy cardboard. The stench of sweat and smoke from drugs poured out despite the early hour.

Even at dawn my visit was causing a stir. In the middle of the cemetery I was surrounded by a growing group of rowdy men, uncomfortably close. Nancy pulled me aside and introduced me to 16-year-old Margaret who goes by her street name, Princess Chea.

Margaret is tall and incredibly thin. She wears a thick wooly jumper and leggings despite the humidity and heat of Liberia. The parts of her body which are exposed show signs of some kind of skin disease. Margaret looks me in the eyes and tells me her story. She is matter of fact and shows no emotion. The lifelessness in her eyes unlike anything I've seen across a decade working with some of the world's poorest children.

Margaret explains that she thinks she has been living at the cemetery for around six years. When asked how she survives she says 'sex'. Selling herself for $1-2 each time, on a good day she will find 10 men. It seems she was ten years old when she started selling her body. She regularly takes drugs to cope..

Nancy explains that Princess is one of the longest-standing residents of the cemetery and came here as a young child when her parents died. She had nowhere to go and found sleeping on the streets very hard. She says that there are around 100 children and young adults who sleep inside the ghetto and there has been an influx since the Ebola outbreak.

"People who have lost their family, their homes, find themselves sleeping on the streets but they are not safe. On the streets anyone can hurt you, even the police. You will be robbed of what little you have, beaten and raped. There is nowhere safe to rest."

Despite my own concerns about machete-wielding residents, the cemetery walls lure in helpless youngsters. It offers a strange sense of protection. Police will not come here to chase the tomb-dwellers away and the average criminal is too frightened to enter.

After an hour in this horrifying place Nancy guides me and the Street Child team back through the tomb maze and to the safety of our car to discuss what can be done and how we can prevent more children from coming here and ending their lives in this way. We thank her and return to the relative comfort of our old jeep. I turn to our lead social worker and ask out of interest what Nancy sells in her shop in such a precarious location. He explains "She is the local drug dealer supplying everyone you have seen."

Lying in my hotel bed that night, under the protection of my mosquito net I couldn't stop thinking about Margaret, huddled down in her dank tomb in the rain. I feel sick at meeting this young girl who has been so badly abused and walking away, not taking her with me to somewhere safe. I walked away from a human whose life has become so worthless that she sleeps amongst the remains of dead bodies and sells her own to buy enough cocaine to drown out the next day.

Street Child wants to help Margaret leave the cemetery. It will be hard after so many years of abuse, but we want her to find a life away from drugs and prostitution. We will offer Margaret ongoing counselling and try to help her leave drugs behind. We hope to trace down members of her family or extended family and friends who can offer her somewhere to live. Eventually we hope Margaret will be able to learn a new skill so that she can set up a business of her own and survive without selling her body.

Street Child is working hard to keep girls in Liberia in school. We believe this is key to preventing them from ending up in Margaret's situation. Liberia is in the lowest 10% of countries in the world for gender equality: girls drop out of school very early and once they are not in school they are exposed to abuses, poverty, prostitution and often have no future ahead of them.

What's more, gender inequality has got worse since Ebola. More girls have been forced to drop out of school because families hit hard by the virus can no longer afford the school fees.

Street Child is in the final week of an appeal to help girls in Liberia and Sierra Leone to go to school and finish their education. We want to give some of the world's poorest girls the chance to build a positive future. All donations made to the appeal before the 17th July will be doubled by the UK government.

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