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Soldiers manning Ebola checkpoints bring back war memories

A local health worker checks the temperature of a person passing through the Newton checkpoint on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Soldiers have been sent to uphold quarantines of towns and man checkpoints to identify people who may have Ebola, which has killed more than 1,200 people since December in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Every day motorcycle mechanic Issa Kamara walks up to a soldier on the outskirts of Sierra Leone's capital. After getting his temperature taken the officer clears him to enter the city on his way to work.

"The digital thermometer looks like a revolver and pointing it at me looks like putting a gun to my forehead," the 22-year-old, clad in a yellow shirt and black pants, said in Newton, outside Freetown. "It reminds me as a small boy of passing through the checkpoints during the war years that were meant to stop rebels from entering Freetown."

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma sent soldiers wearing gloves and paper masks to screen people for Ebola symptoms as they enter Freetown, a city of about 1 million people, stirring up memories of the military presence during a civil war that the United Nations says left more than 50,000 dead and many more maimed. In neighbouring Liberia the capital Monrovia, a similar sized city, has suffered a similar fate.

The governments turned to the armed forces after the spread of the disease spiralled out of control as patients and their families avoided clinics and doctors in those two countries and Guinea, where the disease was first reported in December.

After returning from Sierra Leone last week, Doctors Without Borders President Joanne Liu said the West African nation seemed like it was living through wartime. The Paris- based charity has more than 700 doctors in the three countries where more than 1,300 people have died of the viral disease. The World Health Organization said this month that the magnitude of the outbreak has been vastly underestimated.

More than 2 million people fled their homes during the 11-year conflict in Sierra Leone, which ended in 2002 after troops sent by Britain helped defeat rebels backed by former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Taylor is now in prison for crimes including recruiting child soldiers and having them hack off the limbs of civilians.

The outbreak of the disease has brought Freetown to a standstill. Movie houses, bars and clubs have been shuttered. Government workers have been ordered to stay home and checkpoints and quarantines of towns have made it hard to get food and other supplies to the capital, driving prices higher and causing shortages.

In Monrovia, butchers stalls are empty at markets, as drivers are refusing to drive past checkpoints and in to the city to avoid the disease.

The price for a 50-kilogram bag of rice has risen 15 per cent to 150,000 leones (26 euros) in Freetown this month, while the cost of a bucket used to wash hands has almost doubled to 70,000 leones.

The increases, which the government has criticised, will probably mean that Sierra Leone will exceed its inflation target this year, Samuel Turay, head of the consumer price division at Statistics Sierra Leone, said.

"If this kind of trend continues, I am afraid maybe we will go back to double digit" inflation, he said. "We are really worried."

Sierra Leone should have used the military earlier, when the disease was limited to not very populated areas near the border it shares with Guinea and Liberia, Lansana Gberia, the Sierra Leonean author of a book on the war.

Sierra Leone's military has about 8,000 soldiers and is regarded as well-trained by Britain after the civil war, he said. Liberia's armed forces are smaller, about 2,000, and not respected, he said.

"Trust may be an issue in some areas because of the experience with the military during the war," he said. "There is always a fear of having to deploy the military in internal operations of the country."

The use of the military may have other unintended consequences, as memories of the civil war frighten people and deter people from seeking help, Mustapha Turay, 45, an administrative assistant at the Tonkolili District College of Health Sciences, said in an interview in Freetown.

"The presence of the military and police needs to be scaled down in order not to give the impression that Ebola victims are criminals," he said. "The war against Ebola does not require the presence of armed personnel: This is a medical war."

When the first cases of the disease were reported in neighbouring Guinea some patients refused treatment and others denied the disease existed, thinking it was a hoax. That complicated efforts to control the spread in the region.

When the outbreak worsened in July, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea brought in the military and police to make sure doctors could do their work unimpeded. In all three countries, families of patients have forcefully removed the sick from treatment centres and led protests that have turned violent.

On 16 August, 37 patients suspected of having Ebola left a makeshift treatment centre in the Monrovia neighbourhood of West Point after the facility was overtaken by people who stole medical supplies. The government has located the sick and transferred them to the John F. Kennedy Hospital, Information Minister Lewis Brown said Tuesday.

Before the soldiers were deployed, people who went through the checkpoints ignored health workers, Tommy Abu, an employee of the Ministry of Health who mans the crossing in Newton, said.

"The presence of the military is helping us greatly," Abu, 56, said. "Had it not been for the presence of the military and the police it could have been very difficult to control people."

Silas Gbandia – Bloomberg News
— With assistance from Elise Zoker in Monrovia.
Bloomberg News photo by Silas Gbandia