Sierra Leone Children Orphaned By Ebola Face Worse Situation Than War

Many children whose parents have died of the disease must fend for themselves and cope with the grief on their own.

Zainab Kamara, 20, who lives in Morambie, a poor suburb of Freetown, has been left to care for her four siblings after their parents died of Ebola.

Zainab Kamara, the youngest is five-year-old Sailay, for whom she cares, along with 13-year-old twin brothers and an eight-year-old brother. They too have been missed, because the Ebola response is focused on containment rather than the social devastation left in its wake. There is no systematic collection of information about those remaining in a house after a burial team has removed a corpse.

When our parents died, we had nothing, we had no food at all,” said Zainab. “Nobody gave us anything. No money, no food,” she replies.

What did the burial team say? “Nothing.” Did they say they would come to help you? “No.” Did anyone ask if there were children in the house? “No”. And anyone from the government? “No.”

This is common in Freetown, where the 117 Ebola hotline gets frequent calls about children left behind after highly contagious corpses are removed by the burial teams, whose only priority is to lock down infection.

Another family, known as the Sesay family are three teenagers from Alimrana, in the Waterloo district of Freetown whose parents died from the deadly virus, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Tentatively, three young teenagers approach. They have expressionless, hollow eyes. The tallest, a boy, offers a small smile. The two girls barely muster a greeting.

They sit tightly together on a bench in the dust. Asked how his parents died, Ibrahim, 16, says “nobody has told us”. “My mother just passed away. I don’t get any information about her. She died on 24 August.”

His mother was three to four months pregnant when she died from Ebola. The prognosis for pregnant women with the disease is poor. Few survive. “She miscarried. The ambulance came. They discharged her, but unfortunately she was not able to survive,” he says. “My father died seven days after the funeral.” Asked if they had died of Ebola, he replies: “We don’t know the right information.”

The British charity Street Child was alerted about the Sesay family by neighbours, just days earlier. Kelfa Kargbo, the charity’s country director, says it is likely they do not want to utter the word Ebola because of the stigmatisation.

For two months, the Sesay children – Ibrahim and his sisters Sawudatu, 14, and Kadiatu, 13 – have been left to fend for themselves while burdened with grief. Aunts and uncles have also died. An uncle, who they say lives far away, is the only adult survivor in their extended family.

They are typical of the 2,000 orphans with whom the charity is in contact, or knows about, who have been left to their own devices. The Ebola response is so focused on containment of the disease that there is no team of officials working in the slipstream of the burial teams to register orphaned dependents.

The Kamaras can count on the support of what appears to be a tight-knit community working through its collective grief over Ebola.

Since the virus first struck Morambie in August, it has killed 67 people, leaving 25 orphans.

“Right now, there is a corpse in there,” says Uma Kamara, the village leader, gesturing to a house just feet away. Three children under 10 are dead, and their father. “Every day here there’s a funeral.”

Ebola arrived after a villager returned from a funeral of “a prominent man” elsewhere. People had washed the corpse as part of a traditional burial. The man brought Ebola to Morambie.

In one house, 23 of 29 people died including the mother and seven of eight children, says Kamara.

A similarly ill-judged decision to honour the dead was made two hours away in a village near the town of Makeni where 103 people died after the community decided to disinter the corpse of the village chief and give him a ritual burial. This is outlawed under the country’s state of emergency.

How will Morambie overcome the trauma? “They cry, cry, there is a lot of sorrow. It will not be quick, the sorrow multiplies on a daily basis,” says Kamara. “It is worse than the war.”

Courtesy: The Guardian

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