Day One – Welcome to Freetown It’s pitch black when we arrive at Lunghi airport at 01:00 local time, and the rain is coming down heavily. The journey, which before this outbreak, took six hours from London, has taken us 20 hours. No airline flies direct to Sierra Leone from the UK anymore, so we have two stopovers – one in Paris and one in Casablanca.
Ebola poster Not that we were in any doubt, but it doesn’t take long to establish all is far from well in Sierra Leone.
Before we’re allowed into the main terminal building, we are ushered towards two large red containers filled with chlorine. Everyone silently adheres to washing their hands before entering. We’re immediately handed “health declaration” forms asking us – among other things – where we’ve travelled in the past eight weeks and whether we are suffering with fever, diarrhoea or vomiting.
We’re also given a leaflet explaining what Ebola is and how it spreads. Disturbing animations show cartoon people squatting, passing blood in their urine and faeces. Similar posters are plastered all through the arrivals hall.
We pass through immigration – but before we are allowed to claim our baggage, men in gloves and white coats stop us again.
One of the men gives me a big, reassuring smile and then places a temperature gauge a few inches from my head. He says: “36.5 degrees, you can pass.”
Our driver meets us at arrivals. I instinctively go to shake his hand and then immediately withdraw. He smiles and pats his chest instead – this is the new Sierra Leone handshake. “Welcome to Freetown,” he
says. Day Two – The gravediggers Today we are filming at the country’s main referral hospital – Connaught Hospital in central Freetown. As we enter, I see a woman in a purple and pink shirt lying on a bench, with her head in her hands.
She looks extremely unwell. This area is where patients showing symptoms of Ebola come for help, but the help is limited.
This isn’t a treatment centre, it’s an isolation ward within the hospital. People have to travel many miles from here by ambulance to get proper supportive treatment. There are just 18 beds in this hospital, and they are all full.
The latest patient to arrive is a one-month-old baby. Ebola killed both his parents overnight, the chances are he is also infected and will die within days. All medics can do is feed him and hold him through protective suits. I am reminded of my trip to Guinea a couple of months back, when I was covering this outbreak. Back then I watched
the body of a four-month-old baby lowered into the ground. Ebola also killed his mother. It’s heart breaking to imagine the most likely outcome for this other tiny baby.
Ebola clinic People who have died of Ebola must be handled using strong protective clothing and gloves, and they must be buried immediately As we are leaving the hospital, a black truck pulls up. The burial team is here to remove two bodies and bury them in the nearby cemetery. We watch and then follow the makeshift hearse to these ictims’ final resting place.
A whole area is cordoned off just for suspected and confirmed Ebola victims. Walking into it is eerie and tragic. There are hundreds of graves, most dug very recently, with fresh mounds of mud on top of them. One or two have a cross or children’s toys scattered on them. Most, though, are unmarked. What hits me is the sheer scale – 400 odies buried here in a matter of weeks.
The burial team is efficient and almost jovial. I imagine it’s the only way they can keep performing this grim task day in day out. The cemetery supervisor, Abdul Rahman Parker, tells me he’s been ostracised by his community – people are scared of him now because he handles the bodies of Ebola victims. But he says he doesn’t care, and that Sierra Leone needs him to continue doing this job, even if its people don’t realise it.
The day ends with the burial teams throwing their protective clothing – gloves, masks and body suits – into the last grave. It’s starting to rain again. We remove our protective suits and put them in a yellow biohazard bag, which the burial team disposes of. We spray ourselves with disinfectant, and silently head back to our hotel.