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Liberia

The Hardest Labor, Clearing Ebola's Dead In Liberia

Meet the Burial Boys of Monrovia, whose role is no less important than medical staff in trying to stop the disease from spreading further.

Checking fever in Monrovia
Checking fever in Monrovia
Christian Putsch

MONROVIA During the day, KollieNyilah says his work collecting the dead keeps him from losing his mind. Sitting in the truck on the way to homes of reported Ebola victims, Nyilah is surrounded by people he calls his brothers. Three drivers, four porters and two men — the sprayers — who will disinfect the areas where the dead are found with chlorine solution.

Like him, they are all body collectors. They're doing what they've done every day dozens of times in the past weeks, starting with putting on the white protective clothing that Nyilah regularly curses because of the heat. It covers every single pore and keeps away the Ebola virus, but never the sun. They gather up the bodies and take them in special sacks to the crematorium. Every handhold is practiced. This is the daily choreography of death.

There's so much to do, so much to take into account. It takes his mind off all the faces that the lethal virus has stripped of humanity. The faces appear in the evening, during the night, haunting the mind of this gaunt 26-year-old who used to repair mobile phones and computers for a living.

Nyilah leads Dead Body Management (DBM) Team 5 in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. In this country, the Ebola virus rages like nowhere else. Over half of the 4,500 people killed by the virus worldwide over the past few months are from Liberia. And those are only the registered cases. The number of unknown cases could be many times higher.

A lonely job

International aid organizations fear the epidemic can no longer be contained. As the cases multiply, the dead have to be removed ever more quickly: Nowhere is the virus more contagious than on a dead body.

His new job has made Nyilah lonely. The taxi drivers he tries to flag down after work keep driving as soon as they smell the dried chlorine solution that sticks to his skin and clothes. His friends have suddenly stopped coming to see him. His girlfriend is keeping him at arm's length. That's the way it is with all so-called Burial Boys, as men like Nyilah are called in Liberia.

Nyilah says he couldn't do anything else. This concerns his country, his people. "We're afraid this virus will get to our families." Somebody has to do the dirty work.

At noon on a recent Saturday, Nyilah is waiting in what was formerly a courtyard of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare but that is now occupied by the Liberian National Red Cross Society, which coordinates the efforts against Ebola. The Red Cross has 16 teams of 10 people each, groups like Nyilah's, trying to rid the city of infected corpses.

Today, Nyilah is on stand-by duty. Four teams are currently working, and that seems to be enough. In the past few days there haven't been as many dead as there were a couple of weeks ago. Then it was up to 60 a day. Now it's around 30. Still, Ebola continues to spread rapidly. Nearly a third of the official 9,000 West Africans infected by the virus contracted it during the last three weeks.

Nyilah has heard that many of the infected are fleeing the city because they fear they won't be buried in the Liberian tradition. Nyilah and his people take the bodies to the crematorium.

The city has 1.5 million inhabitants who live crowded together, and the city administration has forbidden burials of Ebola victims. In July, when the number of infections rose dramatically, officials designated disposal sites on the city's outskirts where Ebola victims could be buried. Then came the rain, non-stop, softening up the wetlands in particular even further. Shortly afterwards, the papers were publishing photos of bodies that had washed up out of the earth. The city learned something from their mistake. The only problem is that people don't want to burn their dead because it goes against local customs.

The phone rings. A body has been found on a bank of the Du River, and the cause of death is not yet known. That means an Ebola team has to head out. Anyone wishing to bury a dead person needs a document certifying that Ebola was not the cause of death. It currently takes up to a week to get the certificate. The labs process the blood tests of the living first, but in Monrovia's dank heat, bodies can rot within days.

By the time the body collectors clatter down a muddy path to arrive at the riverbank, hundreds have gathered around the body. The team knows what to do. They put up red barrier tape. Four men approach the cadaver, which has already decomposed into several parts, stretch out a black body sack made of thick synthetic material, lay the body inside and hoist it up on their truck.

Pay cuts

Ebola has made Nyilah a hero of the death zone. There are a few others like him. A woman preacher for example, a doctor, a young woman on the outskirts of town, a student who patrols a slum. They've been drawn into the fight against the virus. They do what has to be done. Not everybody can — or wants — to see what they do, which sometimes makes their work all the harder.

The Burial Boys took the rap for what happened between June and August. The infection was spreading, the authorities were overwhelmed, there were hardly any international aid organizations. People were calling hospitals asking for help, but the ambulances never arrived. Then when it was too late, the body collectors came.

"You don't give a shit about the living. You only show up when they're dead," people would shout. They threw stones at Nyilah, some brandishing machetes or drawing pistols. What's the use? he would ask himself in such moments. The Liberian government and the Red Cross now have the teams monitored by psychologists. All members meet in the morning at 7:30, two hours before work begins, to eat breakfast together and talk about their experiences.

The job pays around $1,000 a month, which beats what Nyilah was earning fixing computers. But, he says, "for the job we do, it's not a lot." The government wants to halve the amount soon, with funding dependent on an 82-million-euro World Bank emergency fund that pays risk premiums for doctors, nurses and transporters, not only in Liberia but also in Sierra Leone and Guinea, where Ebola has also been killing hundreds for months.

With 200 dead health-care colleagues, the prospect of a pay cut makes Nyilah shake his head. A few days ago, Liberian nurses working in isolation wards took to the streets to protest their own round of salary cuts. "They're letting the patients down for a few dollars, sending them to hell," the Minister of Health railed. "We can't spend everything on salaries. We also need medicine."

Nyilah says he's given the matter some thought, and has ruled out a strike. "Somehow we have to get this job done." There's one other Ebola statistic the Burial Boys of Monrovia proudly cite: No one from the team has been infected.

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