MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — First 16-year-old Promise Cooper’s mother complained of a hurting head and raging fever, and she died days later on the way to the hospital. The following month, her father developed the same headache and fever, and her baby brother grew listless.
That’s when Promise knew this was not malaria.
She had heard about Ebola on the radio. When she tended to her father, she washed her hands immediately afterward. Desperate to keep her three other younger siblings safe, she urged them to play outside and stay away from their one-room home. Yet she was powerless before an invisible enemy, as her family of seven disintegrated around her.
In the meantime, neighbors and relatives were starting to become suspicious. No one came by to check on the kids, not even their grandparents.
Word, like the virus, was spreading through Liberia’s capital: The Coopers had Ebola.
In Liberia’s large, deeply religious families, there is usually an aunty somewhere willing to take in a child who has lost a parent. But Ebola, and the fear of contagion and death is now unraveling those bonds.
At least 3,700 children across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have lost one or more parents to Ebola, according to the U.N. children’s agency, and that figure is expected to double by mid-October. Many of these children are left to fend for themselves, and continue to live inside infected houses.
At the Cooper home, tiny Success lost his battle with Ebola at just 5 months, long before he could live up to the expectations of his given name. By the time an ambulance could come collect the corpse, along with Promise’s father, 11-year-old Emmanuel Junior fell sick.
After watching them all packed into the back of the ambulance, Promise was now alone with 15-year-old Benson and 13-year-old Ruth. An uncle stopped by to drop off some money but left without touching them for fear of infection.
If the children sat down somewhere, people would spray bleach after they got up. When they tried to buy something with what little money they had, vendors refused to serve them. Women took the long path to the well to avoid the house.
“Why don’t you want to talk to me? Why God does nobody want to come around? We are human beings,” Promise sobbed.
Finally she scraped together enough change from a cousin to take a taxi to the Ebola clinic to check on her father. She and Ruth paced outside the barbed-wire topped walls of the clinic for what felt like hours, waiting for an answer on when he would be coming home.
Then a security guard came back: Emmanuel Cooper Senior was on the list of the dead.
The girls broke down sobbing. No one could tell them if 11-year-old Emmanuel was still alive either.
Even as Promise mourned her parents, a community leader named Kanyean Molton Farley took the children under his wing. Farley did human rights research by day and tried to help the neighborhood’s orphaned children by night.
He worried that Promise could fall prey to an older man. At 16 and hungry, she was vulnerable to abuse.
Then the Cooper children caught another lucky break: Promise saw her brother’s face on television among government photos of children who had survived Ebola at the city’s clinics but were still separated from their families.
“It’s him, it’s him!” she told Molton. Off they went to get Emmanuel — the first in the family to survive the plague sweeping their neighborhood.
But not long after Emmanuel came home, Ruth became feverish and unwell. How could this be happening again? A terrified Promise called Farley again. He couldn’t get them an ambulance until morning because of the curfew, so he told her to use mattresses as room dividers in the single bedroom where they all slept.
Ruth would stay on one side; the healthy children would sleep on the other.
Now it was just Promise and the boys.
The children slept together in their parents’ bed instead of crowding on the floor below, as they had in their previous life. Some nights her brothers would weep for their mother, and Promise tried to be firm but caring.
“I tell them Ma and Pa are no more, and that they shouldn’t worry about that,” she says. “We must concentrate on living our lives because they are gone.”
Just a few weeks ago, their aunt Helen came around to the house — the first family member to do so in months. Now she too is shunned.
“I have to come back because everyone has abandoned them,” says Helen Kangbo, breastfeeding her 1-year-old daughter Faith after joining her nieces and nephews for a paltry dinner of rice. “I must have the courage to come.”
There has been other good news for the Cooper children: After three weeks, 13-year-old Ruth is better. She is still weak, so she is staying with Farley’s family. When Ruth is well enough she will return home.
Here in their house, there is little trace left of dead loved ones, because authorities have burned their parents’ clothing in a bid to stop the spread of the disease. The only photos of their parents are on their voter ID cards. And the only reminder of Success is the two bottles of baby powder, still sitting on a table in the room.