Text by Daniele Bellocchio
Photographs by Marco Gualazzini
The Survivors: Ebola’s Legacy
Memories can become cruel prisons when all hope and the illusion of mercy are lost, and life is engulfed in nostalgia of the past. Memories, however, are also fuel, prompting wild actions which shatter paralyzing caution and the predetermined order of common sense. They are salvation when memories give life to audacity which keeps faith alive despite everything being lost.
”My mother loved me, yes, she loved me and wanted me to get my high school diploma. She would help me study, she always supported me and if today I have my diploma it is because I thought of her and I know she helped me.” Claude Mabowa is 21 years old, he stands three meters away as he talks to me on the other side of the orange netting separating us: we can’t even shake hands, just look at each other and talk, as Claude is still positive to the Ebola virus. He is recovering, but in his blood and in his body, there are still traces of the disease. His voice, his majestic bearing, while around him everything genuflects to death, make him a survival mystic. His body is still in the grips of atrocious pain, while his face bears traces of that fear which petrifies the brave man as he hides his tremors.
Yet he carries in him a rare sacredness, that which is borne only by those who have dared to challenge life’s constraint to live by keeping their thoughts and gaze constantly fixed on the memory of the last moment before tragedy struck. Delving into his story arouses reverence, not compassion; it carries within it a misfortune which is hard to conceive, but also the pride donned by the doomed who recklessly rebel to a fate pre-assigned to them, to injustice with no answer. ”My sister was the first to fall sick. She was also the first to die. At home we didn’t immediately realize it was Ebola, because she suffered from asthma and so we thought her condition and her difficulty breathing were caused by her pathology. Instead, it was the virus, and by assisting her we were all infected.”
A lucid and detailed reconstruction which leaves you aghast. Claude continues to recount: “Then my mother died, my younger brother died and then I started to feel ill, my fever wouldn’t go down and so they brought me here to the Treatment Centre where I was put in intensive care for four days. Once I was out of danger I had only one thing in mind: to take my diploma exam.” A clear irrationality, a slither of redemption sprouting, impossible to decipher yet with the strength to generate a plan for the future. ”I asked doctors to find a way I could take the exam. Ebola had destroyed me, taken away my loved ones, and I did not want it to take away my future. They set up a special unit made of glass separating me from the commission, I took the written exams and then the oral tests with a thesis on philosophy. I succeeded in getting my diploma and I believe it was my mother who helped me, because I did it for her, in memory of her.”
Claude is one of the survivors of Ebola and spends his days in an area of the Treatment Centre assigned to all those who are out of danger but whose body still tests positive to the virus. Recovering patients are only discharged when they test negative and there are no traces of the virus in their bodies. It is a limbo of endless waiting, and thoughts constantly buzzing with no relief. ”When they told me I was out of danger I couldn’t believe it: I was incredulous, I had surrendered to the idea that I was going to die.”
Kabibale Komby Vianey is one of the ”healed”: one of those who having survived the disease are now immune to it and work in direct contact with the sick. He matured the decision to devote his time to assisting others during the hours spent waiting in the purgatory of convalescence. “I was a maths teacher, I had a normal life, a good job and all those possibilities which are not to be taken for granted here in the Congo. One day I wasn’t feeling so well, I went to the hospital where they lay me down on a bed previously used by a person who had died of Ebola. And that is how I caught the virus. A week later I was diagnosed with the illness. I was terrified, it had all happened so suddenly and I thought it was going to be the end of me.”
The health worker then goes on to say: ”As I was waiting to be discharged I thought deeply and felt I had an obligation towards those who had saved me, so I decided to leave teaching and work in the centre helping the sick. I tell them my story and explain that the disease can be defeated. I try to bring them comfort. Now I am a healer of feelings.” However, recovering from the illness does not always go hand in hand with retribution and a palingenesis of the tragedy. Sometimes patients are overcome by undecipherable suffering, a pain worse than the virus persists inside them, condemning them to a present of pure tragedy which allows for no compassion.
Roseline Kavira Lukando is sitting in the darkness of her home. On the walls hang pictures of her husband and son, their faces among the two thousand victims of Ebola. Today, like a memorial of the genocide, the victims live on in the portraits their relatives carry round their necks or hang on the walls of their homes: just an image, not to forget them, not to let the world forget this epidemic. ”I survived, but I no longer have a life. I have lost everyone: my mother, my father, my husband and my son who was only two months old.”
Roseline’s words reveal the entity of the pain the woman carries: ”I fell into a coma and when I woke up I learnt that my husband and my son had died. I am alone and have no one to help me. People avoid me, some throw stones at my house, or send letters threatening to kill me; the community think I caused the death of my loved ones, they accuse me of poisoning them and say I am paid by those who have brought Ebola to exterminate the people of the Congo.”