Fear of Ebola led to murder - and a whole village was punished
The lecture about the dangers of Ebola had just begun, but the village had heard enough. A group of women started chanting, to warn the others against the visitors, “They are coming to kill you.” A mob of men masked their faces, waved machetes and rushed toward the speakers. Stones began to fly.
On a September day in a peaceful Guinean farming village, a simple presentation turned into a slaughter. Two days later, authorities uncovered the bodies of eight people in a ditch used for human waste. The dead, who had come to the village of Womey to teach about Ebola, were local officials, doctors, journalists and a popular pastor. Several had their throats slit.
The killings shocked a world already in a frenzy about the growing Ebola crisis.
“Why? Why? Why?” asked Jacques Mamy, the oldest son of the slain pastor, Moise Mamy. “Why do people act like this? . . . Why do people kill a good man?”
The Womey killings show, on an extreme level, the problems that health workers across West Africa face when they enter communities that have little to no education, along with no understanding of the realities of Ebola and how it spreads. Security incidents related to public health efforts continue to be reported throughout much of Guinea.
Nearly six months after the Womey massacre, the repercussions have been far-reaching. When the military invaded and looted the village after the killings, thousands fled their homes. More than a dozen died from malnutrition after living for months in the surrounding bushland.
Hundreds of miles away, in the capital of Conakry, a 36-person “Crisis of Womey” committee seeks ways to help the people of the village recover from the national shunning they have faced. Womey’s residents have returned, but theirs is a place deeply troubled by feelings of stigma and shame.
Those who died in the bush after being forced to flee their homes will never be counted in the official Ebola death toll. Neither will the eight slaying victims. But they are all just as much casualties of the epidemic as any of the 9,600 who have perished from the disease in West Africa.
Those who were hacked and beaten to death that September day died not from the Ebola virus — but from the fear of Ebola. By all accounts, villagers attacked them because they believed the delegation had come to kill them with the disease.
“I think people should not be discounting the fear factor,” said Holomo Koni Kourouma, a member of parliament who handles advocacy and external relations for the crisis committee. “If you don’t understand the Ebola dynamic, and if you don’t understand the fact that people think you are coming to kill them, then it’s going to be hard for you to understand this story.”
But officials say that is no excuse. Abdoulaye Sampou, the prosecutor assigned to the case, said he is personally “embarrassed” that people could act with such ignorance.
“We, the children of Guinea, know that the world is waiting for this judgment,” he said. “We are speeding this up.”
About an hour and a half from Womey, about 30 of those charged in the killings are locked in a dark, stone-walled jail, awaiting a mass trial that could begin within weeks. If found guilty, they could face life imprisonment or the death penalty.
The rush for justice has villagers, and at least one defense attorney, claiming that the case has turned into a witch hunt. An additional 14 people were accused of the killings and imprisoned for months but later released because of a lack of evidence.
Sampou said he plans to charge about 40 more people in connection with the killings. He said they remain wanted and on the run.
Village by village
Before the killings, Womey was a thriving village of more than 5,000 people, where farmers grew rice, coffee beans and palm oil.
“What bad has happened there in the past 10 or 20 years? There is nothing,” said Kourouma, the parliament member.
In mid-September, a government-led delegation planned its visit. As the Ebola outbreak raged and deaths surged, educational visits such as this one, known as a “sensitization” effort, occurred all over West Africa.
And in the remote forest region of Guinea, the lack of education about how Ebola spreads — through bodily fluids from the ill, or transmitted during traditional burial ceremonies — was particularly worrisome.
Government groups launched educational billboard and radio campaigns, but many villagers in the forest region cannot read and may speak only one of several native languages. And most people there have no exposure to billboards or radios.
Officials knew they had to spread the word in person, village by village, to stand any chance of stopping the deadly virus.
Moise Mamy, a local evangelist, was ready to help. Mamy, 55, had founded a medical center called the Hope Clinic in his home village near Nzerekore, the largest city in the forest region. He spoke several of the forest languages, built local schools and was known by many in the area. One of the workers in his clinic was a Womey native.
Mamy had gone on these Ebola education trips before, but volunteers and missionaries had always led the way, his family said. This was a new, government-led team, and he was unsure of how they would be received. The power and formality of an official delegation could give the mission a different dynamic.
“Because he was someone who liked to help people, he agreed to go,” said Jacques Mamy, his 34-year-old son. “Womey was their first village.”
Sept. 16, 2014
The official narrative of what happened Tuesday, Sept. 16, largely depends on who tells the story.
Before the trip, the leaders of the delegation got in touch with village elders in Womey to make arrangements for the visit. This was crucial — in accord with local tradition and a way to establish a tone of mutual respect.
But it might have been botched, according to interviews with officials and villagers. Several said that the village elders objected to the timing of the visit. A traditional ceremony for young women, which some said was a female genital mutilation ritual, would conclude that day, and many outsiders would be in the village for the ceremony.
The presence of others during a serious discussion on Ebola would cause anxiety, said Lazare Loua, a physician born in Womey who serves on the crisis committee. “The process of telling people about Ebola is very, very delicate,” he said.
But the leaders of the delegation did not change the date. When they arrived about 11 a.m., there were no immediate signs of tension. They went to the common meeting area outside, in a market area typically used for gatherings.
The first speaker began. A second presenter continued.
Then, the dynamics shifted. Some villagers heard that the delegation had begun to spread Ebola by spraying a solution of bleach and water. It is a mixture commonly used to kill the virus, and around the country, health workers have sprayed down people, surfaces and even cars with it as a preventive measure.
But the villagers didn’t know this. They thought there was Ebola in the spray. “For the village, Ebola means death,” Kourouma said. “So when you are saying someone is spreading Ebola, you are basically saying he is killing you. So in the face of death, a lot of things can happen.”
Loua, the physician, said he heard that a strong aroma of bleach had wafted through Womey. “The scent, it took over the village,” he said. “Everyone was smelling it. People started throwing stones, saying, ‘Leave our village, leave our village.’ ”
Then, women began to chant in their native language, according to Damantang Albert Camara, a government minister and spokesman.
“What do you do when someone comes to kill you?” they chanted to the village men. “We will kill them,” the men responded, according to Camara’s account.
“One of the people of the delegation heard the song,” Camara said. “And he said to the other, ‘Something is wrong. What I heard is not good for us. Let’s go.’ ”
In other versions of the story, a security guard for the delegation grew worried and fired a warning shot, causing mass chaos.
But the stories all end the same way.
“Everyone ran,” said Samson Haba, who was later charged in connection with the killings. He spoke from the jail in Nzerekore and denied he had any part in the violence. He was an interpreter for the delegation that day, he said. He believes he is being charged because he was responsible for keeping peace in the village.
“We saw stones coming,” he said. “Everybody tried to escape for their lives.”
More than an hour and a half away in his home village of N’Zao, Moise Mamy’s family knew something was wrong when he did not return that Tuesday evening. As word spread of the disturbance in Womey, they prayed that he was alive somewhere, perhaps being held captive. They called his cellphone over and over, but he did not answer. Hundreds of supporters came to their home and kept vigil. Days later, they learned that his body had been recovered in the latrine.
“I think to myself, ‘Do I want to know the details?’ ” said Anja Erickson, a missionary who, along with her husband, worked with Mamy for years. “No, it’s too awful.” Still, her mind is racked by questions. “Was it preplanned? Was it something against the government?” she wonders. “Or was it just ignorance?”
In the jail, someone has scrawled the French word “inocente” on the towering stone walls. Men urinate in the corners. In a separate area, two women charged in the killings sit on the steps outside their cell, wringing their hands.
During a recent visit, all of the nearly 30 men charged in the Womey killings lined up against the outside wall. When asked by a reporter if any of them admitted guilt, just one stepped forward, 42-year-old Jacob Haba. He said he was visiting Womey that day from a neighboring village and encountered a group of young men with their faces masked by bandanas. They told him that people were infecting the village with Ebola. Later, he saw those same men beating a man who was wearing a suit. He joined in the beating.
“They said, ‘This is a man who brings Ebola,’ ” Haba said.
He said that one day, he will answer to God for what he did. But first, he must answer to the judge. He plans to ask for forgiveness.
Jacques Mamy said the result of the upcoming trials has little meaning. He believes the people of Womey are “bad people” but knows his father would have wished mercy upon them.
“My father was too dear to me, and they killed him,” he said. “Even if they said they are going to kill all of the population of Womey, it’s not going to replace my father.”
Loua, the Womey-born physician who runs his own clinic outside Conakry, said he feels so much embarrassment that he averts his eyes when walking down the street. Since joining the crisis committee, he said, he has received threatening calls.
“They say, ‘You are dangerous people. You will pay for this,’ ” he said.
The villagers say it may take decades to replace what has been lost, both in reputation and in material wealth.
After the killings, the military invaded Womey and looted nearly everything of value, including goats, sheep, furniture and eating utensils, according to interviews with villagers and officials. Thousands of people fled into the surrounding bush and stayed there for months, living in huts in the bush.
“The idea that all 5,000 people of Womey could be responsible for what happened is just wrong,” Kourouma said. “The whole village was not guilty. Even in Guinea, it was very difficult to explain that we should not be punishing a village for an act done by few people.”
The crisis committee staged a hunger strike in November to raise awareness for Womey’s displaced residents. They said 14 people, including newborns, died in the bush because of lack of food and medicine. On a Saturday in late January, a U.N. team distributed a 45-day supply of rice and corn for nearly 1,200 families in the village.
The people of Womey say although they are back home, they are still starving. But there is some good news. So far, they said, there hasn’t been a single case of Ebola there.
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