THE BLOG

Surviving Ebola - Living With Loss

11/11/2014 10:49 GMT | Updated 10/01/2015 10:59 GMT

'No way', says Mukhtar, looking shrewdly at what's left of the wooden bridge in front of us. 'The car stays here'.

A telling statement considering he's spent the last two hours driving us across jagged boulders and along narrow sludge filled paths, deeper into the jungle which presses in on either side.

This is Kailahun, the epicentre of the Ebola epidemic in the Sierra Leone. People here bore the early brunt of the disease. It hit hard and fast while the world looked the other way. Somewhere through the trees lies the imprecise and porous border with Guinea, and beyond it the origin of the outbreak.

We're on our way to see Annalita* and her little boy David* in their village. When we arrive on foot the clearing opens up to reveal 20 or so small houses encircling the shell of the long-destroyed village headquarters. It's a looming and ever present relic of the brutal civil war that ended more than ten years ago. Today this village is struggling with the aftermath of another deadly battle. Annalita and David are its veterans.

"My husband was the first person to catch Ebola in this village", she tells me slowly and quietly, as we sit outside her house, while cacao is laid out nearby and tossed in the sun to dry. "I don't know how he got it. In less than three days he died. We had heard of Ebola, but I never thought this could be it.

"One day I went to market and started feeling sick. My body started hurting. As soon as I felt sick I was afraid. Then my son William* developed the sickness. Within days we were vomiting. And in time three other people got sick too. They took all five of us to the centre in Kailahun, and my other son David. I was unconscious when I left. Only the two of us came back.

"William and I were in the same booth. He fell from the bed to the floor. I was too weak to get up. I just had to lie there looking him. The nurses came and checked, and he had died. I was looking on but I couldn't move. I remember, of all the children I gave birth to I suffered for him.

"When I think of him I cry. He was very stubborn, and would never listen to anyone."

But David had been discharged, Ebola-free. "If David had died, it would have been too much for me", Annalita says.

While his mother was fighting for her life and watching helplessly as Ebola took his brother, David was taken to an Interim Care Centre supported by Save the Children. When Annalita was starting to feel better he came to visit.

"We had one hour and there was a fence between us. I said 'I am getting better, and by God's grace we will be together again'."

Annalita was right. She was making a recovery and was soon able to pick David up to take him home. But for Annalita, David, and so many others who have survived Ebola but lost those they love most, coming home was hard.

"When I returned to the village people would greet me but not get close. I didn't feel bad. I knew they were trying to save people's lives. Some would sit with me. Some would not. I could understand their fears."

With the help of social mobilisers trained by Save the Children, Annalita and David have been slowly welcomed back but the fear of Ebola still courses through this community.

"Now, if people from this village try and go to other villages, people throw stones at them. But we are afraid of them too. We don't want strangers here."

The number of confirmed Ebola cases in Sierra Leone has now careered past 4,000. In reality the figure is likely to be far higher.

One of the key elements in the fight against the disease is contact tracing - monitoring and following up everyone who has come into contact with Ebola patients to ensure that if they develop the disease themselves they are cared for in isolation, and do not risk passing it on to their friends and loved ones.

Here, deep in the bush, the scale of that challenge could not be clearer - or more complex. Save the Children is training and supervising contact tracers and providing bicycles to help them make difficult journeys like this and many more, chasing after Ebola wherever it strikes next.

At least 873 children in Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola, and the numbers continue to climb. Annalita and David may have won their battle against the disease, but their struggle with grief and loss is an on-going fight they share with thousands of other families across West Africa.

*names changed to protect identity