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'Frontline: Ebola Outbreak and Hunting Boko Haram': Resistance and Devastation in West Africa

Images of devastation unite Ebola Outbreak and Hunting Boko Haram, two harrowing PBS documentaries.

Hunting Boko Haram

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Sebastian Stein, Manjo Lamin, Tim Jagatic, Anja Woltz
Network: PBS
Director: Wael Dabbous
Air date: 2014-09-09

"The absolute rule was, 'Don’t touch anyone.'"

Wael Dabbous

"He's carrying a nine-year-old boy who just died. His body is still highly infectious." As Frontline's familiar narrator Will Lyman tells you what you're looking at, the screen shows a white plastic bag, carried by two men dressed in yellow and white hazmat gear, their arms and hands covered by bright green gloves. The shot is long, and your view is obscured by grasses and a plastic orange fencing. The men carry the boy's body into a tiny plastic hut with what may be a tin roof, where he will be stored until he can be buried.

This scene comes near the start of Frontline: Ebola Outbreak, reported by Shaunaugh Connaire and airing 9 September on PBS, along with another segment, Hunting Boko Haram. Both tell stories of terrible pain and fear, of chaos and uncertainty, of death and loss. Strikingly, the story of the virus in Sierra Leone (spreading exponentially, from Liberia and also into Guinea) provides faces in ways that the report on militias in Nigeria cannot, precisely because these would-be hunters of Boko Haram have become so immediately and brutally threatening to civilians, leaving survivors fearful of showing themselves.

The ebola virus continues to attract press attention in the West in part because US-born victims are returning to the States for treatment, attended by news cameras. But as the virus may horrify TV viewers, who learn, for instance, that 60 percent of those infected die, its effects are multiple and complicated for people in Sierra Leone. For one thing, as Stein tells Frontline, he and others who mean to alarm patients, who hear that anyone who goes to a hospital dies.

"We come in dressed up like spacemen and we can try and say nice things, but the fright and the terror of being alone as a child in a hospital especially in these circumstances is just its too much for any small child." The show makes this clear in repeated shots of doctors and aid workers tromping about the field hospital in their protective gear, necessary because the virus is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids. "You need to be covered everywhere so you have no exposed skin," explains Stein as he covers his head with goggles and a hood. Lyman adds, "Simply touching a victim can be fatal."

This is the case for many villagers, who do their best to care for sick family members, but have no means to protect themselves. While local hospitals are "barely functioning" because so many staff members have been infected, some nurses are taking to the streets, with flyers, placards, and mobile PA announcements, warning people not to touch victims. Still, daily, the consequences are plain and increasing, as when a young girl arrives at the field hospital after she's touched her grandmother's body at the funeral.

As heartbreaking as such background stories may be, Ebola Outbreak's focus on one couple, 21-year-old Kadiatu and her 35-year-old husband Fallah, both infected and taken to the hospital while they must also leave their four small children behind in the village. Their escort is Manjo Lamin, a Sierra Leone health surveillance team member. He and his team travel each day from place to place looking for victims to bring to the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) field hospital for treatment (which, at this point, consists mainly of trying to bolster the body with food, fluids, and electrolytes, so its own immune system can fight the virus), many of whom are so afraid that they flee from the very folks who might help them. Manjo and his team members have decided not to wear protective uniforms when they go out, but instead do their best to maintain a six-foot distance from the people they must entice and then transport (not incidentally, they team is so short on vehicles that they've been using a hearse for an ambulance, a frightening sight in itself).

The show follows Manjo on his journeys, or doing his best to comfort Kadiatu and Fallah once they're isolated behind orange fencing, and it's hard not to wonder how he goes home to sleep, or what he tells his family (he's already been quarantined himself, owing to a thankfully mistaken diagnosis). But even as he deals so gently and tenaciously with the living, urging them to trust him in order to keep living, the show turns back to Stein at its end, working with a crew of local gravediggers, all volunteers who have lost multiple family members. He walks carefully, noting that he's "trying not to step on the graves, trying to show some respect, but it's impossible" as the graves accumulate. A harrowing moment occurs as they stop their digging and hefting of white body bags, in order to offer, one by one, just the numbers of people they know who have died, the camera panning and pausing on each face, gaunt, weary, and bereft.

Even as this segment ends with a note on numbers, those lost so far and the World Health Organization's estimate for how many will die as the virus continues to wreak havoc through 2015. The transition at this point to Evan Williams' report on atrocities committed by the Nigerian military and militia groups who have apparently been sent to hunt Boko Haram, the extreme Islamist group best known in the West for kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls. After offering brief background on Boko Haram, including a series of familiar images from the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, the segment switches focus to the militias, specifically a collection of videos secured by Williams, showing beatings, tortures, and executions by militia and national military members wielding machetes and swords. As Williams reports, such barbarities have resulted in men joining Boko Haram, not because they believe in the group's cause, but because they seek protection from the government.

Williams goes on to interview witness and a former militia member; their faces are blurred out, but their memories of what they saw are acute and vivid. It's remarkable and also mundane, now, that while some of these videos are captured by villagers with cell phones, watching young men accused of being Boko Haram and hauled away, or killed on the spot, others have been made by the killers themselves. Images of devastation in Ebola Outbreak can raise awareness of ebola victims and perhaps generate increasing efforts to do battle against the virus. It's possible that the images of atrocities in Hunting Boko Haram might also inspire resistance, but they also reveal how little attention is paid to the destruction done by men against men.


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