Ebola centres attacked in DR Congo as conspiracy theories circulate
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An armed group attacked an Ebola treatment centre in Butembo, a town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on February 27. It wasn’t an isolated incident-- three days earlier, an armed group also attacked another health centre about 15 kilometres away from the first. In both cases, the assaillants didn’t harm patients or staff but instead sought to burn and destroy the buildings and medical equipment, according to our Observers.
Ebola continues to wreak havoc in the far east regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to French medical charity Médecins sans frontières (MSF), an estimated 870 people have been diagnosed with the illness since the outbreak of the disease began six months ago in North Kivu and Ituri. Of those who have fallen ill, 540 have died. The Red Cross told our team that, since early February, the epicentre of the outbreak has been in the towns of Butembo and Katwa.
The virus causes a hemorrhagic fever and it is ruthless, killing about 40% of people who are infected.
This deadly and mysterious disease has sparked numerous conspiracy theories in the regions most affected. As a result, many people have become wary of the doctors and nurses who treat Ebola victims. Some blame them for spreading the disease.
On February 19, a group of men armed with bows and arrows murdered a nurse in Vuhovi, which is about 15 kilometres from Katwa.
After that deadly incident, a group of nurses -- fearful for their lives and safety -- went on strike. This tragedy and the resulting protests disrupted efforts to quell the epidemic.
This video shows the health centre in Katwa on February 25, the day after the attack. (Video by Evariste Paluku).
During the attack on February 24, armed men burned the health centre in Katwa and destroyed the medical supplies on hand. For the time being, the attackers have not been identified. French medical charity MSF, which ran his centre, announced that it was suspending its work in the region.
“This attack affects our ability to react in what is now the epicentre of the epidemic,” said Emmanuel Massart, an MSF coordinator in Katwa in a statement.
On February 27, armed men also attacked a health centre run by MSF in Butembo. They exchanged fire with police officers who were protecting the clinic and also destroyed medical material and burned cars and buildings. According to several local sources contacted by the France 24 Observers, a police officer was killed during the attack.
This photo shows part of the burned out health center in Butembo. (Photo taken on February 28 by Bienvenu Lutsumbi.)
“It was in the dark of night, we were terrified”On February 24, Janvier Kathembo, a 24-year-old assistant nurse, was working at the Ebola treatment centre in Katwa.
This shows the entrance to the health centre in Katwa on February 25. (Photo by our Observer Bienvenu Lutsumbi.)
I was on duty when the attack started around 10pm. The assaillants began by throwing rocks at the building. It was the dark of night, we were terrified. We decided to hide in one of the rooms with some of the patients. We had ten patients in total but five of them were too weak to be moved.
We didn’t really understand who the assailants were. They didn’t yell or call out slogans that might have helped us understand what their motivations were. They burned motorcycles, a car, part of the morgue, warehouses and generators.
After about two hours, security forces arrived and rescued us.
The health centre in Katwa was partially burned in an attack. (This photo was taken on February 25 by our Observer Bienvenu Lutsumbi.)
The city government in Butembo as well as certain press outlets claimed that the Maï Maï, an armed militia created during Congo’s second war, were behind these attacks. The France 24 Observers spoke to local journalists, witnesses and local residents who said they weren’t so sure.
One nurse died after he fell into a ravine when he fled the attack, according to Congolese authorities.
“The police officers in Butembo were taken by surprise”Bienvenu Lutsumbi, a journalist for local radio station Upendu Kivu, went to see the two health centres after the attacks.
On February 27, around 5:30pm, armed men attacked the ITAV centre in Butembo, where the patients from Katwa had been transferred. When I went there the next morning, it was a similar scene to what I had seen in Katwa-- there were burned out buildings and vehicles, including an ambulance.
This motorcycle was burned during the attack on the compound of the Ebola treatment centre in Butembo. Photo taken on February 28 by Djiress Baloki).
This MSF ambulance was burned during the attack on the health centre in Butembo on February 28. (Photo by Djiress Baloki).
In Butembo, one police officer was killed by the attackers. A handful of police officers had been stationed at the centre in case of another attack but they were taken by surprise. Even though the police officers were armed, they were no match for the large number of attackers who, according to witnesses, were divided into groups.
During this attack, about 50 patients who were being treated or monitored for Ebola (38 were suspected cases while 12 were confirmed) fled, managing to find refuge with locals. Most of the patients eventually made their way back to what was left of the treatment centre. Several patients are still missing, however.
“Fake information, rumours and conspiracy theories have been spreading online or by word of mouth”Everyone that the France 24 Observers interviewed said that these attacks were a violent reflection of the general uneasiness and suspicion amongst the population towards the specialists treating Ebola. This mistrust has been fuelled by false information and a general lack of knowledge linked to the conflict, says Charly Mathekis, a 44-year-old teacher and writer in Katwa.
People are confused. On one hand, some political leaders have said in the media that Ebola was invented for political reasons while, on the other hand, religious leaders are calling on people to take the epidemic seriously. Local people also resent the fact that a lot of the healthcare workers brought in to deal with this crisis come from other regions or abroad and that they are better paid than local nurses.
Some people can’t fathom why people with symptoms similar to malaria go into these Ebola treatment centres and end up dying several days later. They think that the illness is actually created and spread in these centres.
Lots of false information, rumours and conspiracy theories have been circulating both online and by word of mouth. Many of these rumours claim that the illness was manufactured as a way to generate profit or as a political move meant to delay the elections [Editor’s note: In late December, elections were delayed in both Beni and Butembo because of the Ebola epidemic].
This is an example of one of the messages that was circulating on Whatsapp about the Ebola epidemic. The France 24 Observers team got this message on February 15, 2019.
I think that there hasn’t been a strong enough effort to raise awareness. But the situation is improving. The healthcare workers have been working with community leaders. Quite a few cultural activities have been organised to bring together health workers and the community. For example, I wrote a play and some musicians wrote songs to encourage people to get treatment.
“The numbers of attacks has risen of late”Dr Jacques Katshishi, who runs the Red Cross program to tackle Ebola, agrees that there is a negative perception of Ebola treatment programs amongst the population. He says that you can really see the tension during burials of people who died from Ebola.
Unfortunately, the safe method of burial doesn’t correspond with traditional practices and it ends up angering the many people who aren’t allowed to touch the body or take it out of its body bag. Recently, the number of attacks has increased and grown more serious in Butembo-Katwa. There were two more attacks in February, aside from the tragedies in Vuhovi and Katwa. We hope to see the results of our efforts to raise awareness.
This article was written by Liselotte Mas (@liselottemas)