Democratic Republic of Congo — North Kivu is the most volatile region in the Democratic Republic of Congo – an active war zone where theis centered. Moving around parts of the country is so hazardous that we need to travel with an armed escort. Danger is everywhere: Behind the barrel of a militiaman’s gun or lurking in a deadly virus.
We start our filming in the Virunga Forest, looking for bats, which are the source of Ebola. It’s a breathtaking place, but its natural beauty belies something far more sinister: We are less likely to be attacked by wild animals than we are to be ambushed by humans.
So in order to cover this story, producer Sarah Carter, cameraman Meshack Dube, and I travel with Geoff Mabberley, a CBS News high risk adviser. Geoff gives us regular briefings on safety in a war zone and how to mitigate the risk of contracting Ebola. And on this assignment, the thermometer is our most important weapon.
We take our temperature twice a day. A spike is an early warning sign that something is wrong. Basic hygiene saves lives here. We hose down everything, from ourselves to the equipment, with chlorine spray, which kills the Ebola virus. In high-risk Ebola areas, we wear protective white suits, goggles and masks, which act as barriers against the possible transmission of the disease.
“You go to war zones, you can see somebody shooting at you,” cameraman Meshak Dube says. “Covering Ebola is something that you can’t see. We’ve got head wraps, body wraps for the GoPros. It’s actually quite a lot of equipment, and if any of it gets contaminated, it’s stuff that we’ll have to throw away, unfortunately,” he says.
The next day we head to Beni, which is the epicenter of the disease in DRC. Our first stop is the Ebola treatment center. There have been major advances in the treatment of Ebola since the last deadly outbreak in 2014. Now, patients are put in plastic isolation cubes, which provide a protective barrier between them and their doctors. The cubes help dramatically in preventing the spread of the disease, and outside of them, we don’t need to wear our white suits.
But there are still times when health workers have to enter the cubes and care for patients face to face. This is too hazardous for Meshack to film, so Dr. Junior Ikomo agrees to wear a GoPro during an exam. Afterwards, it will have to be soaked in a bucket of chlorine to decontaminate it.
Carefully, in full protective gear, Dr. Ikomo unzips the plastic door of the cube and enters. He checks his patient’s eyes and mouth, every point of contact deadly. But Ebola is not the only enemy here. Twenty years of civil war means violence has become a part of people’s everyday lives.
We suit up in body armor and helmets to accompany United Nations peacekeepers deployed in the region to protect villagers from the over 30 armed militia groups operating in the area. One of them is the ADF, a Uganda-based Islamist organization that has begun to attack Ebola treatment centers.
We join the soldiers as they patrol the bush where the militias hide. The thick vegetation makes it difficult for them to track the militants.
The chaos here means that health workers are more terrified of the violence than Ebola.
But soon, we’re swapping our body armor for Ebola armor to visit a children’s Ebola unit. There are no isolation cubes here, because the babies, who either have or have been exposed to Ebola, need to be touched and loved in order to thrive. Ebola survivors, who have become immune to the disease, care for the children, and are able to hold them without protective gear.
We, on the other hand, need to wear our white suits, goggles, and gloves, and stand far away as we conduct interviews. It makes it very difficult to connect with the people we’re speaking to – we look and feel like aliens trying to get information.
When we finish, Geoff helps each of us peel out of our suits, spraying us with chlorine as he goes along. Taking the suits off is the most dangerous time. One accidental touch and you could give yourself Ebola.
Unlike the people who live here, we get to leave and go back to our children, free from the burden of war and disease. But this time, the relief after finishing a dangerous assignment is muted. We will have to monitor our temperatures for 21 days, which is the incubation period for Ebola. In a war zone the danger recedes as you leave the area, but here it’s invisible and could be inside you.