Harrogate Ebola volunteer tells of Africa horrors

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A selfless volunteer who has been working with Ebola victims in Liberia has spoken of the horrors she faced as she returns home to the Harrogate district.

Whixley’s Agnes Caroline van der Velde, known as Cokie, is a grandmother of three, an allotment holder and a keen gardener.

But she is also a volunteer of 12-years with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) the charity known as Doctors without Borders.

She has just returned from her third humanitarian mission this year as water sanitation expert, setting up hospitals and training staff on infection control.

Her job, the one that nobody wanted, was to collect the bodies of the Ebola victims.

“It’s a job that needs doing,” she said this week. “I feel honoured to have been of use to people.”

Cokie worked in shifts, often 14 to 16 hours, collecting 10 to 20 bodies a day and taking them for mass cremations.

“We’ve done day shifts followed by a night shift,” she said. “You become pragmatic about it.

But I try and treat them all with respect. That makes you feel better about what you are doing.

“We always stop for a moment before we take the bodies away. I’m not religious, but many of the staff are.

They say a silent prayer. I say their name and a silent goodbye. They deserve that final silence.

“You find, coming back after that, all the trivialities of life become so minor.”

Cokie became involved with MSF 12 years ago after raising her family in Kings Road, Harrogate.

After her son, Sam, grew up and started a family of his own with wife Kathryn, she moved to Whixley four years ago. She has been on many missions for the charity.

“Working for an aid organisation was something I always wanted to do,” she said.

“I always felt strongly about the injustices of the world. I’m a doer, not a talker. It was natural for me to volunteer.”

The hardest thing, she says, is working with the orphans that are left behind.

When the mothers die, the staff often know little or nothing about the children left behind - not even their names.

“There was a boy, about 15 months old, the same as my granddaughter,” she said.

“As cute as can be, with a great big grin. We all took turns looking after him, bouncing him around on our knees in the boiler suits.

“Then one day he came down with a fever.

“It wasn’t until a week later that I unzipped the body bag to find he had died. That’s awful, when it’s a baby, carrying that little bag to the morgue.

“But believe it or not, we can have a bit of a laugh and a get together in the evenings. A lot of people do die. But a lot of people survive.

“We’ve started employing some of the survivors to look after the orphans, to play with them and look after them while they’re in incubation.”

Cokie has been home for two weeks and is desperate to see her three Harrogate grandchildren, Isaac, eight, Joseph, six, and Susanna, 16 months.

She must be in incubation for 21 days. Every day she must take her temperature several times, recording all data in case of any sign of infection. But, she says, people are afraid.

“I’m no risk to anybody!” she said. “Even if I had Ebola, I wouldn’t be contagious until I showed symptoms. My family back here get the worst of it.

“The only thing I want is a hug! But people are scared of me. I haven’t actually seen my grandchildren yet. We don’t want them to be stigmatised.

“Luckily I have a large garden to keep me busy.”

Cokie, who has been offered training work until Christmas, hopes to go back in the New Year.

“I know my family would like me to stay,” she said, “But they understand that I have to do this.

“For however long it takes.”