- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - In Liberia it’s called Watch Night, the party that starts when the clock turns over not just a new day but a new year.

Normally it’s an effusive celebration, marked by dancing and singing, hugs and kisses.

As 2014 became 2015, Liberians, free for just one night from a curfew that had been in place since the peak of the Ebola epidemic, did indeed celebrate in the Pillar of Fire Church in Harbel, loudly and with passion.

But this Watch Night was different.

“This Watch Night there was no hugging and kissing,” Cheryl Hatch said.

Hatch, a photojournalist and visiting professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College, is in the West African country covering the U.S. military’s efforts to assist the Liberian government with the Ebola outbreak. She is traveling with writer Brian Castner on the trip, which is being funded in part by a $12,500 grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Hatch has reported from war zones before: Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, others. Her first combat reporting was in Liberia during its civil war, in 1990.

This is a different kind of war, a fight against an enemy unseen until it presents itself in a blood sample, maybe, or a spiking fever.

The last time she was here, the airfield in Monrovia was destroyed. Now she can connect to Wi-Fi in a Black Hawk. Different, too, is the fear.

“There was a different kind of heightened vigilance” covering wars, Hatch said. “Whereas in the past I might have been … worried about the guy with the gun or a roadblock or checkpoint, this time it was ‘I need to be careful not to step in crap on the beach or bump up against someone sweaty.’

“It’s a different set of precautions,” she said. “It’s also counterintuitive. By nature you want to high five people and play with children, and all those natural connections are not recommended.”

Murals on the side of the roads show, in sometimes graphic detail, the way Ebola can be transmitted.

Here, hotel staff walk around with white bits of paper stapled to the collar of their uniform. On the paper: their recorded temperature. Other people slap sticky notes with their temperature onto their foreheads or around their wrists like Band-Aids.

Every time she has entered a store, the hotel, a restaurant, someone has taken Hatch’s temperature, asked her to wash her hands in bleach water.

“I’ve lost time of how many times I’ve washed my hands,” she said.

Rain boots she bought at the Boot Box in Meadville especially for this trip get the bleach treatment, too, dipped every night. Before she goes to bed and when she wakes up, Hatch takes her temperature herself.

She has visited a mobile blood unit in the village of Tapeta and the site of a Ebola Treatment Unit. She planned to visit a facility with land set aside for the safe burial of Ebola victims. Previously, some bodies had been cremated.

“That was an affront and a heartbreak to the Liberian people,” Hatch said. “There’s no grave to visit, no ritual of good bye.”

Much of the military’s work has been accomplished. Some soldiers already have been sent home, she said.

“On the military checklist, they’ve done what they said they were going to do. They built the ETUs, they’ve trained the workers, they haven’t had anyone get sick. So for them, they’ve done well.”

Hatch doesn’t know where the story will take her now. She talks to people she meets - the hairdresser on the street, the ladies praying on the beach -trying to find out. Is it about how the country may soon open its schools again? About whether, once this epidemic is over, if people will remember safe practices?

“I’m hesitant to say what the story is yet because I’m still working on it,” Hatch said. “I don’t feel like I know the whole picture yet.”

It’s natural, perhaps, to ask ‘Why do this?’ Why spend winter break in a hot zone? Hatch had originally planned to go scuba diving in Hawaii.

Instead, she went to a cramped fishing village called West Point and tried not to get other people’s sweat on her.

She has a simple answer for why, borrowed from photographer Michel du Cille: “This is what we do.”

The most challenging part of the entire expedition was before she even left. Over Christmas, she told her parents that she would be putting herself in harm’s way once again.

Her dad dropped his head to his hands.

Hatch still feels bad. You hear it in her voice, her sighs.

“They just need the time to process the information, and then they know, ‘This is Cheryl.’”

For Hatch, it is worth it to bear witness. It is worth it to preserve history. To be there, where the news is. So she got her yellow fever shot, a visa, and notified the student health center at Allegheny. She went to the Boot Box.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/14l5lrH

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Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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