Ebola threatens stability in Sierra Leone, expert warns

Belfast conference told of fears disease could strain country as it emerges from civil war

Karol Balfe (left) and  Rosamond Bennett (right) of Christian Aid in Ireland with Paul Lansana Koroma  at Ulster University in Belfast. Photograph: Paul Moane/Aurora PA

Karol Balfe (left) and Rosamond Bennett (right) of Christian Aid in Ireland with Paul Lansana Koroma at Ulster University in Belfast. Photograph: Paul Moane/Aurora PA

 

The outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone not only is causing death and fear, but it is threatening the shaky political stability in the west African country, a local peace worker has warned.

Paul Lansana Koroma, who is from Sierra Leone, is one of several representatives from 13 countries affected by conflict who yesterday attended a conference in Belfast examining how to tackle violence across the world.

The conference is organised by Christian Aid and the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute. It is attended by delegates from countries such as Israel, Palestine, Pakistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Myanmar, formerly Burma.

They met in public session yesterday at the University of Ulster’s Jordanstown campus to discuss “civil society, conflict transformation and peace building”. Their discussions are continuing privately today.

Mr Koroma said that in Sierra Leone, where more than 1,500 people have died from the disease, the authorities are finding it difficult to “wrestle with Ebola”.

He said that an additional challenge for the government in Sierra Leone is trying to ensure that dealing with Ebola doesn’t lead to divisions and tensions that could threaten the current peace.

Mr Koroma is a programme director with the Network Movement for Justice and Development in Sierra Leone, mainly working in the southern region on peace, human rights and access to justice issues.

Country in transition

He explained that Sierra Leone is still a country in transition from conflict to peace after the civil war of 1991-2002 that claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people. He said there was a real concern that if Ebola was not brought under control, there could be wider and more sinister repercussions.

“There are restrictions on movement, food is increasing in cost, and communities are becoming isolated and all that is causing frustration and fear,” he said. “The authorities are using a more heavy hand where it is not really about Ebola but it is a way putting people down. There is a suppression of free speech; there is more division,” added Mr Koroma. “We find out that violence has not gone away and all of those things are bringing us back to the years before the war when we had no governance, when we had suppression.”

Mr Koroma said people now lived in an “inter-dependent world” and it was in the interests of everyone that the outbreak of Ebola be contained and brought under control.

Karol Balfe of Christian Aid in Ireland said rebuilding society in Sierra Leone was “very much a work in progress” and that there was concern that the Ebola outbreak could put the peace “under huge strain”.

“Countries like Sierra Leone really need support so that they can deal with the Ebola crisis. People are also trying to consolidate the peace and problems like Ebola really put that peace under pressure,” she said.

“What we are trying to do in this conference is bring people together who are at the coalface in working in areas of conflict, often at great risk to themselves,” added Ms Balfe. “Such people are working in very difficult areas and often feel very isolated. We want to give them an opportunity to come together to share and learn from each other.”