Guarding The Ebola Border

Nov 18, 2014
Originally published on November 18, 2014 10:22 am

On a map, a border is a solid black line. On the ground, it can feel like a fiction. I'm standing on the edge of a shallow stream through the forest that separates two West African countries: Ivory Coast and Liberia. Here there is no fence. No sign. No border guard to prevent my crossing.

On either side of this stream, people speak the same local language, Yokuba, a language incomprehensible to most of their countrymen. They share the same currency, the West African CFA franc, as well as a currency of trust built up over generations of intermarriage and communal life. There's even one tribal king who can settle disputes on both sides.

Ebola changed all that.

The arrival of Ebola on the Liberian side of the border, Nimba County, with more than 100 cases, turned this border-straddling community into a security risk.

"They know that their relatives are suffering over there," says Dr. Boni Aman, regional health director in the town of Danané, 15 miles inland in Ivory Coast. "They're making attempts to cross the border to bring them food, or they're making attempts to come to Ivory Coast to buy what they need."

In June, the government shut down all local markets along the border villages, hoping that stopping trade would stop traffic. Even today the scaffolding of abandoned stalls sits unused by the roadside. Commerce within this frontier community, even on the Ebola-free side, has ground to a halt.

But in August the government went a step further: It announced that the official border was closed. Along the 800-mile border with Liberia and Guinea, local villagers were organized in volunteer committees to guard the unofficial border crossings, like this babbling stream through the forest.

Standing with me on the Ivory Coast side of the stream are two men from the nearby village of Gahapleu. The village chief, Gueu Denis, and a local carpenter, Tan Benjamin, are both volunteers on the watch committee. They are not armed. They have no gloves or masks. They say they keep watch over this path night and day. Chief Denis says he is terrified of getting Ebola from this work.

But the men are also afraid of something else. They say the provincial deputy authority warned them that if one person in their village gets Ebola, then the entire village will be burned to the ground. They believe they'll be quarantined and left to die. And so they've decided to send anyone they see — even their own relatives or friends — back across the border to face Ebola alone.

Tan Benjamin, the local carpenter, says this applies even to his younger sister, Sabine, living with her three children in Liberia.

"Because of the closure of the border, she can no more come here," says Benjamin. "It's very painful, but as Ebola is a threat for everybody, what can you do?"

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People concerned about Africa have been circulating a simple map. It divides Africa in two parts. There's a small block of nations on the West Coast that are fighting Ebola and the rest of that vast continent is simply labeled No Ebola.

NPR's Gregory Warner visited one of the borders between the two.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Standing about a half-mile from the border with Liberia in the western edge of Ivory Coast, I don't see any fence and no guard and no signage.

OK so here we are at just basically a little path off the road and this path goes to Liberia. (Speaking French) Liberia?

This question in terrible French is directed at the local village chief, Gueu Denis. He and a neighborhood carpenter, Tan Benjamin and a few other farmers have been recruited by the government to keep out trespassers. It's a volunteer watch committee so they're not paid, they're not armed and they have no gloves and no masks. And yet, they have to guard a border that Chief Denis tells me is as easy to cross as wading through a little river.

OK, can we see the river?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language).

WARNER: OK, we're going to walk to Liberia now. The 800-plus mile border between Ivory Coast and the two Ebola affected countries of Guinea and Liberia is often referred to as porous, but zoom in your satellite on this forested region and you could easily miss the border entirely. On both sides of this spot they speak the same local language, Yokuba, a language not spoken anywhere else in either country. Before Ebola, they used to cross the border regularly for weddings and funerals, to trade with each other or for resolving disputes. There's one tribal king who settles conflicts on both sides.

OK so we're just basically walking down this really nice hiking path. There's great butterflies, beautiful palm trees.

The existence of this well-worn path makes government officials very anxious. Dr. Boni Aman is the regional health director in the town of Danane, about 15 miles inland. He says he lacks the basics - the protective equipment, the washing stations, the 4x4 ambulances necessary here to handle an outbreak.

BONI AMAN: If today we have a case, we don't know how to manage it.

WARNER: But he says the border villagers have in the past not shared his panic. Maybe because they don't have electricity, they don't have TV, they're not subjected to a barrage of Ebola news or maybe because their fear is trumped by family feeling.

AMAN: They know that their relatives are suffering over there so they are making attempts to cross the border to bring them food, or they are making attempts to come in Ivory Coast to buy what they need. As human beings, you cannot see another human being suffering and do nothing.

WARNER: It's exactly seven minutes after we started on the path we reach Liberia.

But wait - so like, that is Liberia right there?


WARNER: That's Liberia? That tree is in Liberia? Village chief Gueu Denis says this is dangerous work, guarding this spot without gloves, without guns.

Are you scared that you might get Ebola from this work?

GUEU DENIS: (Speaking foreign language).

WARNER: But then he tells me something surprising - that the provincial deputy authority warned them if one person in your village gets Ebola, he'll burn the entire village, burn it down.

DENIS: (Speaking foreign language).

WARNER: And so they've made the calculation of sending anyone that they might know, even their own relatives, back across the border to face Ebola alone. Tan Benjamin, the carpenter on this committee, confirms this about his own younger sister who lives on the Liberian side.

TAN BENJAMIN: (Through translator) Because of the closure of the border, she can no more come here. It's very painful but as Ebola is a threat for everybody, what can you do?

WARNER: So are you afraid of the Ebola, or are you afraid of the village being burnt or the village being quarantined?

DENIS: (Speaking foreign language).

WARNER: We're scared of Ebola, the chief says. Health officials don't entirely believe him. They think that some villagers may be hiding their relatives that come across. This is exactly why international health officials warn against shutting borders, you criminalize the disease and make it harder to monitor. But villagers here tell me that what they fear is not just Ebola, but their people being quarantined and they believe, left to die. Right now they live on this side of the border, a border that they're in charge of enforcing. What they fear is that a government that wants to keep out Ebola at all costs could easily draw a new border, a quarantine border, with them on the wrong side.

Gregory Warner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.