DISPATCH An explosion of violence clears path for Ebola to spread in Congo Medical workers battling to keep epidemic under control are coming under attack by Islamist groups
n Ebola epidemic in Congo is in danger of “spiralling out of control” amid a series of massacres blamed on an Islamist militia partially financed out of London, aid workers have warned. With 155 deaths since Ebola was confirmed in the country’s North Kivu region on Aug 1, fears of a cross-border epidemic are rising as each new case is reported close to the Ugandan frontier. But local and international efforts to contain the spread of what is seen as the most dangerous Ebola outbreak in Congo’s history have suffered repeated setbacks in conditions described by one Western aid worker as “close to impossible”.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced nine previous outbreaks, including one that killed 33 people in the Equateur region earlier in the summer, but this is the first to take place in a conflict zone.
A Congolese health worker administers Ebola vaccine to a boy who had contact with an Ebola sufferer in the village of Mangina in North Kivu.
And just as Ebola has struck, the conflict has worsened, creating an atmosphere of paranoia in which the violence has grown not only deadlier but more opaque. Government medical teams have reported coming under attack three to four times a week as they cross the region, while their foreign counterparts say they hear gunfire nearly every day
Workers from the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were ordered to leave the most high risk areas as a result. An earlier two-day suspension after a similar massacre in the city late last month had devastating consequences, with Ebola cases doubling because aid workers lost track of the spread of the disease.
Taking often astonishing risks, health workers have administered nearly 20,000 vaccinations, a campaign that had slowed the spread of the virus before last month’s attack.
But agencies warn that the number of new cases is likely to rise again after the second halt. “It will be very hard to stop the outbreak if this violence continues,” said Peter Salama, head of emergencies at the World Health Organisation.Two Red Cross workers were seriously injured when they were stoned by an angry crowd.
Anger has partly been prompted by the insistence of aid agencies on “safe burials”, under which Ebola victims are laid to rest by health workers operating under strictly sanitised conditions. Congolese funerals are normally highly tactile occasions, during which the corpse is sometimes embraced by relatives.
But a greater problem has been mounting rumours, particularly in the city of Beni, that government health workers and even foreigners are complicit in the recent massacres.
“I’ve never worked in such difficult conditions, conditions that are highly volatile, highly hostile and highly dangerous but which we really cannot begin to understand,” one aid worker said. “I don’t want to sound unduly pessimistic but the situation is very close to spiralling out of control.”
Diplomats, researchers and UN officials say the ADF has been involved in the killings. But the Congolese government claims that the group is affiliated with foreign Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and Somalia’s al-Shabaab have been widely questioned.
An investigation by a UN group of experts in 2015 reported that the only foreign funding they could find came from sympathetic Ugandans concentrated in the London districts of Barnes and Fulham who wired tens of thousands of dollars to the group.
A Home Office investigation turned up little, because the senders were careful to keep payments below £600, above which Western Union requires senders to reveal their identity.
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There is also anger towards Monusco, the 19,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Congo, because it has fought unquestioningly alongside government forces in the conflict – a position one Western diplomat described as “a mistake, even if there seemed no clear alternative”.
Monusco announced this week that peacekeepers would be deployed to Beni to protect the anti-Ebola campaign. That may prove a mixed blessing. Some aid workers believe hostility towards them has been worsened because they often venture out with a Monusco escort.
“A heightened Monusco presence in Beni risks angering people further,” the aid worker said. “The problem is we have no choice. Without them, our mission may well be doomed.”