Masa Alieu, a 15-year-old whose parents were stolen away by Ebola, has no idea what their last words were or even where they are buried.
“We did not see them when they died,” she said, spooning out her words one careful thought at a time. “All I know is that people who die of Ebola are buried in bags.”
Masa lives in Kailahun, one of the areas hit hardest by the disease in Sierra Leone. She, her brother Amidu, 4, and their sister Hawa, 2, are among hundreds of children orphaned by an Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 1,900 people in West Africa, ripping apart families and leaving children like Masa grieving and scared. Her parents were rice farmers and the moments she’ll remember best, she said, were when the harvest came in.
“Now, I’m worried about my future,” she said, rubbing her eyes with both hands as she tries to hold back the tears. “And about the future of my brother and little Hawa.”
For the Alieu family, the nightmare began in June when Masa’s father, Josiah, complained of stomach pain. He was rushed to Kailahun Government Hospital, where he was told he had a hernia. They operated on him, and his wife, Martha, cared for him as he recuperated. Soon, though, he began to suffer the vomiting and diarrhea linked to Ebola.
He was quickly transferred to an Ebola treatment center run by Doctors Without Borders, an international aid group working in West Africa. Martha was at Josiah’s bedside when he was showing symptoms of Ebola, which may have been when she caught the virus, Masa said.
‘Loved Each Other’
“My mother and father loved each other and cared for each other,” Masa said quietly, avoiding eye contact with her questioner. Then, “the vomiting and diarrhea separated them, separated them forever.”
After they died, Masa, Amidu and Hawa were screened for Ebola by Doctors Without Borders, given a document that attested to their health and, finally, were picked up by their relatives. Amidu and Hawa live with their grandparents, Mamie Kamara and Abdulai Fatorma, a retired mason in Kailahun.
Kamara earns money by selling items such as cigarettes, biscuits, spices and cassava, the starchy root vegetable that grows around her house. Her husband sometimes sells balusters he builds. They have also received 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of rice from Save the Children, a London-based charity, she said.
Masa, unwilling to follow their rules limiting her time outside the home, lives with a cousin in a dwelling made of mud brick with a corrugated iron roof, no electricity or water and an outdoor latrine.
Masa appears sad and a little uneasy as she tells her story, wearing a red dress and black slippers. When asked to pose for a picture, she adamantly refuses, fearing she will be shunned by others in the community because of her parents’ illness.
It is not a foolish concern, according to Roeland Monasch, the representative for Sierra Leone at Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund. Masa, Amidu and Hawa are among the lucky ones who have found a home despite their immediate family’s fatal brush with Ebola.
“Stigma and discrimination remains a major issue,” Monasch said by telephone. “We have to be realistic. Because of the stigma, for several children, it may not be feasible for them to go back to their own communities immediately.”
Children orphaned by Ebola are only accepted into communities and families after they have been tested for the virus. They are usually screened at the treatment center where their parents died and, if the results are negative, they are handed over to relatives or community members who serve as foster parents.
For children who aren’t immediately taken in by family members, the ministry of social welfare in Kailahun has established a temporary facility with five rooms, mattresses, an indoor toilet and two verandas.
The death toll in Sierra Leone was 422 as of Aug. 26. At least 150 children who live there are registered as having lost parents to Ebola, according to Unicef. Earlier in the outbreak, orphans were left on their own. Groups including Unicef and the social welfare ministry have been changing that response.
“What we are doing presently as a ministry is to protect those children because if they are not protected, they will become street children,” said Safulai Bah, a social services officer in the social welfare ministry in Kailahun.
Fatmata Gbawo, 4, and Amadu Lavalie, 2, whose parents also succumbed to Ebola, are fortunate to have found foster parents Sylvester Kemokai and his wife Hawa through the Save the Children charity.
“I am doing this because I lost my father when I was very young, and I can easily connect with them based on my own past,” said Sylvester Kemokai, 36, a records clerk at the Kailahun Government Hospital.
He and Hawa have four other children and live in a two-bedroom apartment. Like most of their neighbors, they have no electricity and get water from a nearby well built by the Red Cross.
While the family has received 25 kilograms of rice and 50,000 leones ($11.50) from Save the Children, supporting two additional children will be challenging, Sylvester said.
Checkpoints and quarantines of towns have disrupted supplies of food and other supplies, driving costs higher and causing shortages. The price for a 50-kilogram bag of rice has risen 15 percent to 150,000 leones in Freetown this month, while the cost of a bucket used to wash hands has almost doubled to 70,000 leones.
The World Food Programme has predicted that about 1 million people in the affected region will need food assistance in the coming months.
Sensitive to the stigma the children affected by Ebola may face, Sylvester Kemokai calls them “separated children” rather than orphans. The term has been used for children who lost family members to Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002, leaving more than 50,000 dead and many more maimed.
Local authorities are familiar with family tracing and reunification efforts for orphans, which were also undertaken after the war, Unicef’s Monasch said. They want to avoid keeping children in orphanages, he said.
Child mortality for non-Ebola health conditions such as malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea is also rising because of a shortage of health workers and fear of medical facilities, Monasch said. A pediatric hospital in Freetown has been closed for these reasons, he said.
“The vulnerability of children goes beyond these orphans,” Monasch said. “The secondary impact is probably more dramatic than the Ebola impact.”