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Ebola Riots in Sierra Leone Highlight Marginalized Youth Population

Two people were reportedly killed in the town of Koidu after a former youth leader refused to let health officials take his grandmother to an Ebola treatment center.
October 22, 2014, 11:21pm
Photo via Storyful

Riots broke out Tuesday in eastern Sierra Leone when health officials attempted to take a blood sample from a woman suspected of having Ebola. The clashes in the town of Koidu reportedly left two dead and residents under curfew.

The situation escalated after healthcare workers attempted to test a 90-year-old woman and take her to an Ebola treatment center, but the woman's grandson — a former youth chairman for the All People's Congress political party — refused to let authorities take her away. Located in the eastern district of Kono, the town does not have its own treatment center for Ebola and patients are instead taken to a nearby town.

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After the riots erupted, groups of young people wandered the streets, reportedly attacking buildings.

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A leader from Koidu reported seeing two bodies with gunshot wounds, according to Reuters. Local doctors confirmed to AFP that two people had been shot and killed during the riots. Local police commander David Koroma, however, told Reuters that shots were fired at the officers by young people, but that no one had been shot.

The violence in the diamond-rich district once again brings to the forefront the mistrust and tensions between citizens and the government in the West African country that has seen at least 1,259 people die from the hemorrhagic fever. In July, protesters demonstrated at an Ebola center after a nurse disseminated a conspiracy theory about the origins of the disease.

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The incident Tuesday could be of particular concern as the virus continues to spread in the country. Sierra Leone's last Ebola-free district registered its first case of the disease on October 16. In its latest situation report issued Wednesday, the World Health Organization said transmission of Ebola in the region "remains intense." Sierra Leone registered 325 new cases in the last week, according to WHO, and government estimates indicate a rate of more than 20 deaths each day.

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Two of the most telling details of the riots in Koidu are the fact that the participants were young and the district is rich in resources. Areas like Koidu are places where youth have been historically marginzalizd by both the government and extraction industries in Sierra Leone, Tufts University anthropologist Rosalind Shaw told VICE News.

"Young people have been used, their lives used up by others," Shaw said.

Following an economic collapse in the 1980s and a violent civil war that began in 1991 and lasted for more than a decade, a generation of young people in Sierra Leone have developed a wide mistrust of government and concern for political corruption. Despite some narratives surrounding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have suggested, Shaw said riots like the one in Koidu have less to do with fear of modern medicine, and more to do with legitimate skepticism of the government.

"It's not from some irrational thing of why are these traditional Africans so afraid of a modern state and modern medicine," Shaw said, explaining the motivation behind the riots. "There's experience forming their actions and experience for a longtime that tells them their lives are expendable."

The Fight Against Ebola. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB