The threat of widespread disease may have passed, but in the Mano River border communities of West Africa, the impact of the devastating Ebola epidemic is still being felt today.

The disease spawned fear and mistrust and led to the total isolation of many communities, shunned by their neighbours and friends.

Ebola arrived at Camp Three, a remote Liberian border community, in December 2014. With no knowledge of the disease or how it spread, friends and neighbours were quick to rally around the first victims. Mohammed T Sawaray is Deputy Town Chief of Camp Three and was a spokeperson for the community during the Ebola crisis:

We didn’t know what Ebola was or what prevention you could take. By 2015, many people came down with the virus.

Camp Three quickly became isolated. Traders refused to visit the town, the market was closed down and community members were turned away from neighbouring settlements. The region soon gained the ominous title ‘the death zone’.

Communities in conflict

Food shortages followed. The community was forced to use all of their reserves to sustain themselves as fisherman and traders refused to visit – across Liberia an estimated 66% of households used all of their savings during the epidemic. Mohammed explains:

We were left in a dilemma, our position was sorrowful. We were left alone, we were isolated by the surrounding communities and there was nowhere we could go. We used all our reserves to sustain ourselves. We just gave ourselves to God.

Mistrust was not just building between communities, but also within Camp Three itself. Angry community members burnt down a pharmacy owned by the family of one of the first Ebola victims.

Even within the community there were divisions. The right hand side of the community was blessed, it was on the left hand side that Ebola invaded. Many people disassociated themselves with the rest of the community.

Amid these growing tensions, the community called on the support of the local Tewor District Platform for Dialogue (DPDs). The DPDs are community-based networks of local peacebuilders, established and supported by Conciliation Resources and partners, to mediate and peacefully resolve disputes. 

A space to talk

Tewor DPD made frequent visits to Camp Three, organising community discussions to encourage dialogue as well as sharing information about the Ebola virus – the DPDs became an essential link to the outside world. Moahmmed believes their support to the community was vital:  

We used to gather whenever they came, we used to assemble at one point and they told us that we are all one despite the virus. They used to talk to us so that we can put aside our grievances and come together, so that together we were able to fight this disease. 

As well as visiting Camp Three, the DPDs also worked with surrounding communities, talking to them about how Ebola was spread and that it was safe to interact with affected communities. These discussions laid the foundations for dialogue between communities, where they could share their concerns and rebuild relationships:  

We told them we were being denied by surrounding communities. They took that as a challenge and went into most of the nearby villages. Through their influence, now the relationship is better than before Ebola.

The work of the DPDs within Camp Three and surrounding communities was not a quick fix. Rebuilding trust and overcoming grievances takes time, which is why Conciliation Resources believes long-term support for these community-based organisations is the key to their success. 

Mohammed concludes:

The reason the community trusted the DPD, even up until now, is because they were the first people to come in and talk to us, to bring us together as one. They continued coming in and talking to us until we could listen to them, adhere to them. We need them in our midst at all times.