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An Urgent Mystery: Who's Attacking Ebola Responders In Congo — And Why?

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An Urgent Mystery: Who's Attacking Ebola Responders In Congo — And Why?

An Urgent Mystery: Who's Attacking Ebola Responders In Congo — And Why?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The number of Ebola cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo spiraled past 2,000 this week. One reason is health care workers trying to curb the 10-month outbreak have faced repeated attacks. Some of this violence is at the hands of community members who don't trust the government and, by extension, the health workers. Officials, though, are now acknowledging a bigger problem - that political and business leaders may be behind some of the most serious attacks. NPR's Nurith Aizenman explains.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: The current hotspot of this outbreak is the city of Butembo. It's a longtime stronghold of opposition to Congo's national government. And last December, national officials announced that Butembo would not get to vote in presidential elections that month. The justification - Ebola made it too dangerous for people to gather at the polls.

TARIQ RIEBL: If you need a seminal turning point, it's that one.

AIZENMAN: Tariq Riebl is emergency coordinator for the aid group International Rescue Committee. They've got Ebola response teams working at health centers across Butembo. He says at the time, people there were already wondering if the outbreak was just a ploy by the national government to drum up foreign aid money or even infect communities hostile to the government. With a voting ban...

RIEBL: I think we lost a large swath of the people of Butembo at that point because that confirmed all those theories that said this was all about politics; this was all about political power play.

AIZENMAN: Ever since, the violence has surged. Ebola teams will arrive in a neighborhood to vaccinate people or bury a body, and people just spontaneously attack.

RIEBL: People are really seething.

AIZENMAN: But beginning in late February, there's also been a step-up in violence that is obviously well-coordinated. Multiple times gunmen have shot up Ebola treatment centers and health clinics. And on April 19, a group stormed into a hospital where an Ebola team was meeting and killed an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization. Six members of Riebl's aid group were caught up in that attack.

RIEBL: Three were able to get out quite quickly, but three were trapped for several hours.

AIZENMAN: In this part of Congo, there are dozens of rebel militias. National authorities have blamed those militias for the organized attacks, even arrested some of their members. But there's a widely held view that the responsibility goes further.

RIEBL: Yeah, this is - it's very sensitive. There's - yeah - very powerful people involved.

AIZENMAN: It's possible these militias are guns for hire or collaborators with local political or business leaders who are using the outbreak for their own gain. Some of these groups might even be linked to the national government.

Last week, the United Nations appointed a special emergency Ebola response coordinator to essentially get to the bottom of this. They tapped David Gressly, who had been second in command of the U.N. mission in Congo, which includes a massive peacekeeping force. He says these militias are enmeshed in the politics and economy of Butembo.

DAVID GRESSLY: So they have linkages to local traditional leaders, local politicians.

AIZENMAN: And Gressly says some of these power players have been actively spreading the anti-Ebola rumors both during the presidential elections in December and parliamentary elections in March.

GRESSLY: There are those who want to make use of that distrust that's already there to advance a political agenda.

AIZENMAN: An agenda that could be as simple as wanting to keep the government out of territories where these leaders are running lucrative criminal enterprises. They may be using Ebola as a tool to keep the community hostile to the government and therefore out of the way. So what can the U.N. do? Gressly says he'll try to mediate between the government, the militias and local leaders.

GRESSLY: So this is what we have to sort out and make sure that we're not rubbing up against interests in such a negative way that it provokes this response.

AIZENMAN: But one thing is clear to him. This violence is not a simple matter of community mistrust, he says. It goes much deeper. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.


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