“Some of them had picked up rocks,” he recalls, speaking in French. “Some had empty bottles.”
Attia is an official with the International Federation of the Red Cross. He’s originally from Benin but based in a city in Democratic Republic of the Congo that is the current epicenter of an Ebola outbreak that has been raging there since August.
When someone in the community dies of Ebola at home, the Red Cross has been sending teams to collect the body and conduct a safe burial. Normally Attia coordinates these teams out of his office. But on this day he had come along as a team set out to pick up the body of a 7-year-old boy.
Attia says the crowd of about 150 people started gathering as soon as the team arrived in the neighborhood. At first people were just watching as the team pulled on protective suits and walked into the house.
Then, says Attia, just as the team was about to put the boy into a body bag, “the boy’s father rushed in and said he’d changed his mind. He didn’t want his son taken this way.”
That’s when the mood in the crowd shifted in an instant — from curious to menacing. The team immediately backed off and started taking off their suits – now contaminated with Ebola virus — as quickly as they dared.
“You just fear the worst,” says Attia. “You’re trying not to look like you’re rushing because showing fear will provoke the crowd. But you’re also trying to get out before someone throws the first rock. Because you know once that happens everyone will start throwing.”
Attia and the others managed to drive off in time. Just a few weeks later another burial team in a nearby city was less fortunate. A crowd pelted them with rocks. “Two of the team members were seriously injured,” notes Attia.
The DRC’s government reports that on average burial teams, health workers and other responders are being threatened like this as often as three or four times a week.
Partly it’s because many people in the communities where Ebola is now spreading had never heard of it — so they’re resistant to giving up their loved ones to strangers in scary plastic suits.
But there’s another issue, says Ashish Pradhan, a U.S.-based senior analyst with International Crisis Group, a research organization that is a leading authority on conflict areas: “The local population is very distrustful of the government. Their default mode is not to trust the government.”
Even though this part of the DRC has a lot of mineral wealth, people are desperately poor. “They haven’t seen anything from this government,” says Pradhan. And so many have concluded that the ruling authorities only care about exploiting the wealth for themselves.