Beni, Congo – They made their way through the thick forest like astronauts carrying a fallen comrade. Their booted steps were slow and deliberate as if they walked on the moon. A few men waited by a freshly dug grave, checking their smartphones. Without ceremony, the body of Mussa Kathembo was lowered into the ground.
This is Beni, eastern Congo, epicentre of the latest affliction in this war-ravaged part of the world: Ebola. Kathembo was one of the more than 1 700 victims of the nearly year-long outbreak of the disease.
Many people in the outbreak area do not believe Ebola exits. Unfamiliar with the disease, they blame witchcraft, politicians and foreigners for the deaths. That makes things difficult and dangerous for those working to contain the outbreak. And once someone is infected, it is often too late.
When Kathembo fell ill he was taken from his house to the Ebola treatment center, a maze of white tents and plastic isolation pods on the grounds of Beni’s hospital. As he and his wife, who also fell ill, received emergency treatment from health workers dressed head-to-toe in Hazmat suits, their house was quickly turned into a vaccination center by local health authorities and the World Health Organization.
There, relatives, neighbors and anyone else who might have come into contact with the couple stood in line to receive the experimental but effective Ebola vaccine. Reaching everyone was the goal but tracing contacts is a challenge in Beni, where people are known to ride five to a motorcycle-taxi or squeeze 30 passengers into a 10-seat van.
Back at the treatment center, 24-year-old Ivette, a mother of four, slowly recovered from Ebola as she mourned the loss of her husband, Salomon.
In a nearby isolation cube, Kathembo exhaled one last time. The heart monitor went silent and his body was wrapped in cloth and plastic before being taken to the cemetery in the forest outside town.
Asiya, his wife, also died. But their 2-month-old daughter, Lahya, tested negative for Ebola and will survive.