A few days ago I received an email from journalist who works for The New York Times; she had been in Monrovia in September and asked me to find some information that she needed to complete her report. As it did not seem so urgent to me, I noted it down on the ‘pending issues’ notebook and thought I’d get down to dealing with it later that evening, when I had some time.
As usual, one thing led to another and without realising I forgot all about that request.
Some days later, the journalist wrote back again. She was rather upset because I had not replied to her earlier email. And she was right. I apologised and promised I would do my best to find the data she needed.
“Isaco, do we keep a record of all the deceased including the exact date of their death and age?”
“Yes, of course. It is in that filing cabinet,” the mental health coordinator told me.
The filing cabinet was locked and the key was nowhere in sight, but on top of one of the tables there was a blue notebook. “Yes, that’s the one”, he said. “Sit down, open it and look for the information you need.”
So I take from my pocket the piece of paper where I have noted down the information I had been asked for: 'Princess Kawa, nine years of age. Admitted on September 12th together with most of her family.' She died some days later, but I need to know the exact date because we are very accurate with data.
I open the notebook on one of its first pages and immediately my eyes are met with a huge amount of names, dates and ages, written using pens of various colours and by several different people. All those who have died to date are registered here so I know there should be over 700 patients. In barely three months. I repeat this information several times every day because it is one of the things that I am always asked by the journalists; but until that moment, when I opened the notebook, for me, deep inside, this was just another statistic amongst the many that I commit to memory so I can tell others.
While I am reading the notebook, I feel something happening to me; I have a knot in the pit of my stomach and I realise that I am barely managing to withhold my tears. I turn the pages one by one, stopping; absorbed in each line, as if all of a sudden, I had fallen prey to a lack of willpower; listening to the echo in my mind of each name, their age, every admission date, date of their death, the name and family contact to whom the death had been reported.
Where are you Princess? I cannot find you. I slowly turn the pages, trying not to ever reach September 12th, coming across entire families where all of their family members have died, one after the other, on the same day or on later days. I feel bad; it is as if I am looking at tombstones in a cemetery, trying to find the links between the different people who shared the same area and searching for dates, coincidences, to try to imagine what might have happened that day when many people died. The difference is that here, there is no need to find coincidences: all the deaths are due to the same disease and nearly all the victims are related to another. Princess, 13, Princess, 22, Prince, just 8… dozens of Princesses and Princes, but none matches the one that The New York Times is looking for.
Some minutes later, it finally appears: Princess Kawa, 9. Admission date: September 12th. Date of death: September 15th, just three days later. Next to her there are other Kawas, but I am too demoralised to keep on staring at their ages.
Fernando G. Calero is press officer working for Médecins Sans Frontières. He is writing from Elwa 3, the MSF centre for Ebola patients in Monrovia, Liberia. Fernando wrote this post on 20th November 2014.