Ebola brings new terror to war-ravaged region

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The Independent Online

Probably nobody will ever discover how Ebola suddenly appeared in the four little huts called Alokolum in Uganda.

Probably nobody will ever discover how Ebola suddenly appeared in the four little huts called Alokolum in Uganda.

"A disease powerful enough to overcome a goat can strike anywhere," said the head of an emergency medical team as he drove, sweating, along the potholed tracks of the Gulu region in search of new victims. The first to die in the outbreak of the haemorrhagic fever, which has killed 92 people and infected more than 280 since midSeptember, was Angee Agnes. Mrs Agnes, 50 years old with five children and three grandchildren, went to bed in Alokolum with a migraine and aching pains, followed by bleeding. Twenty-four hours later,she was critically ill in Lacor hospital, near Gulu, gripped by the haemorrhagic fever. The disease "liquefies" the body with internal and external haemorrhages.

The medical team checked her home. The night before she was taken to hospital, her children had slept beside her in her soiled clothes and ate from the same plates with their hands.

The doctorsrealised Ebola may have struck Alokolum, and the team hurriedly asked their questions without sitting down or touching the children.

A stone's throw away, at the end of an overgrown path, another hamlet of huts lay in the undergrowth. The doctors started asking their questions again, more rushed this time as darkness was falling. That brings another danger.

The evening is "the rebels' kingdom", said Christiane Adiok. The rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have been fighting government troops in northern Uganda for 15 years, hoping to impose their "law of the Ten Commandments" and set up a Ugandan central bank in Gulu.

About 450,000 Ugandans have been forced into camps where they pray for safety, because the soldiers desert their guardposts at nightfall. Christiane Adiok said the locals were terrified by the guerrillas.

"They come into our villages and steal everything - money, food, clothes and our children." The children - 10,000 abducted in the past five years - have become the nerve centre of this so-called religious war, the boys in the battle lines, and girls in the rebels' beds.

In this chaotic atmosphere, Ebola is just another disaster. In a sinister irony, some of Christiane Adiok's children escaped the disease by being abducted 10 days earlier.

"Four of them were in the fields when rebels came out to take them away," she says. "They marched for a week, walking round and round so they would lose all sense of direction. Then the rebels heard about Ebola on the radio. They realised my children came from the region hit by the fever, and they were scared they would catch it, so they set them free."

Ebola first surfaced in Zaire in 1976. The LRA, based in Sudan, has been accused of bringing in the virus, and so have the 4,000 Ugandan soldiers who were deployed in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo - the former Zaire - and repatriated to Gulu in August.

A World Health Organisation official, Mike Ryan, said the virus bore a greater resemblance to a source in Sudan than in Congo. "But nothing indicates the epidemic crossed borders," he says. "We don't know how it works."