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, Kollie Nyilah 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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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