By Zohra Bensemra

BUTEMBO, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – Arlette Kavugho was discharged from an Ebola ward in eastern Congo in March, but her troubles did not end there.

When the mother of six tried to return to work as a seamstress in her hometown of Butembo, her customers were too scared of catching the disease, despite doctors’ assurances that she was no longer contagious.

Instead she found work as a caregiver to children suspected of having Ebola only to be accused by neighbors of faking her illness to get the job.

To this day, Kavugho has not been able to find the graves of her 19-year-old daughter and two-month-old granddaughter, who died of Ebola while she was receiving treatment and were hastily buried to avoid any further contamination.

“I try to find the dates on the crosses that may coincide with their deaths but I always come back empty-handed,” the 40-year old said softly as she clung to a picture of her daughter with the word “adieu” written alongside.

As of this month, more than 1,000 people have survived the 14-month Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s second deadliest, helped by new medicines that have proven effective against the virus when administered early.

More than 3,200 people are known to have been infected with the virus, of whom more than 2,100 have died since the outbreak was declared in the eastern region.

The survivors, who call themselves “les vainqueurs” – French for “the victorious” – however struggle to return to their former lives as they deal with the fear of relapse, long-term health issues like blurry vision and headaches and stigmatization by their families and neighbors.

Vianey Kombi, 31, was a maths teacher when he contracted Ebola last November. Like Kavugho, he found it impossible to return to his former job and now cares for Ebola patients.

“It hurts when I walk past the school where I was teaching, and the children who recognize me start screaming in my direction: Ebola, Ebola,” Kombi said.

“We have all been accused of receiving money to say that we had Ebola,” he said. “It hurts a lot when your community treats you as corrupt after you’ve been at your sickest.”

GIVING BACK

Accusations like this are common in eastern Congo, where many residents see the outbreak as a money-making scheme made up by the government and outside organizations.

“I was even accused of having received money to bring people from my community to the treatment center, to kill them with the virus and then sell their organs abroad,” said Moise Vaghemi, 33, who survived Ebola in August.

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Mistrust and armed attacks against medical staff have slowed efforts to stamp out the epidemic. Even so, health authorities say survivors play a vital role in their communities by showing that Ebola can be overcome.

Some say they draw strength from returning to treatment centers to work as caregivers for children with Ebola, many of whom have lost parents and siblings to the disease.

The antibodies developed during their illness mean they can spend entire days with patients wearing only partial protective gear and not the stifling head-to-toe suits donned by doctors and nurses.

In Katwa, outside of Butembo, Noella Masika, wearing blue scrubs, a surgical mask and a hair net, bathed a 1-year-old girl suspected of having Ebola in a small plastic bucket.

Masika lost 17 family members to Ebola, including both parents and two grandparents, but she counts herself fortunate to have survived.

“I feel compassionate and grateful for the care I received,” she said. “I feel an obligation to contribute to the fight against Ebola.”

(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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