Photographs by John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images
Story by Brett Roegiers and Mohammed Elshamy, CNN
Two weeks ago a mother buried her two sons. This week she was buried in the same cemetery.
After her burial, a family member was trying to walk away but couldn’t bring himself to leave.
“He eventually went and stood, arms folded, in front of the victim’s son’s grave, stared at his picture on the cross and looked up four graves over to her grave,” photographer John Wessels said. “He did this for at least 10 minutes. It was heartbreaking.”
The mother and her children are among the more than 1,600 people who have died as a result of the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to estimates from the World Health Organization.
The current Ebola outbreak began last summer in the country’s North Kivu province and now constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, WHO announced on Wednesday, July 17. This is only the fifth declaration of its kind in the organization’s history.
The region is also grappling with a long-term conflict and dozens of armed groups causing intermittent violence. WHO has received additional support from the United Nations and local police to protect treatment centers.
“The displacement of people due to these attacks makes it harder for the (Ebola) response to be effective,” Wessels said. “It also means that some days the response is shut down due to insecurity and fighting in the area. All of this adds up to make it a highly complex and stressful environment for community members and doctors alike.”
Wessels, a South African photojournalist based in Congo, has been on the ground documenting the crisis since it started in August.
He has witnessed families gutted by the virus and seen entire communities ravaged. “There is a lot of stigma around the disease, and we could not imagine what people affected by it are going through,” he said. “The stress must be overwhelming.”
“The fact that it is now declared a global health emergency really doesn’t change anything on the ground. It is still at the same intensity and is still as dangerous as it was before.”
The Ebola virus first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, one in what is now Nzara, South Sudan, and the other in Yambuku, Congo. The latter occurred in a village near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.
Ebola is a severe, often fatal illness with an average death rate of 50%. It spreads between humans through direct contact with an infected person's bodily fluids, including infected blood, feces or vomit, or direct contact with contaminated objects, such as needles and syringes.
Despite the danger, Wessels said he doesn’t need to wear protective gear while covering the outbreak. He does, however, follow strict protocols and take precautions to avoid exposure to the virus, like keeping a safe distance from possibly infected zones and washing his hands as often as possible.
Wessels said he plans to continue covering the deadly disease to get the word out about the human toll on the country he has called home for the past two years.
“I’m hoping the world sees how shocking, stressful and heartbreaking this crisis is for the people of North Kivu,” he said.