- - Sunday, December 17, 2017

MONROVIA, Liberia — Faith Sayeh blamed the Red Cross for the death of her husband and two children during the 2014 Ebola outbreak that claimed thousands of lives here.

“I lost my husband and two sons because there were no health workers to give them treatment,” the teary-eyed widow said. “It pains me a lot that people were dying every day not because there was no money but because the money that was meant to hire more health workers went to individuals’ pockets.”

Ms. Sayeh was referring to the shocking report by International Red Cross auditors in November that $6 million was lost to fraud and corruption during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa from March 2014 to January 2016. The auditors discovered overpriced supplies, salaries for nonexistent aid workers and fake customs bills.

In Liberia, $2.7 million disappeared, according to the Red Cross.

“I blamed them for the death of my family,” Ms. Sayeh said. “How can they steal money meant to save lives?”

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa killed more than 11,300 people and infected about 28,600 in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. In Liberia alone, more than 5,000 people died as the state nearly collapsed, slowing the response of health care workers and triggering shortages of medicine and equipment to deal with the crisis.

The Red Cross said it also is trying to recover the money.

“We are pursuing every possible avenue to reclaim all funds that have been misappropriated, diverted or otherwise illegally taken,” said Jemilah Mahmood, undersecretary general for partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an affiliate of the Switzerland-based International Red Cross. “These cases must not in any way diminish the tremendous courage and dedication of thousands of volunteers and staff during the Ebola response.”

Meanwhile, the Red Cross in Africa apologized.

“Our internal auditors discovered the fraud, and we made it public,” said Fatoumata Nafo-Traore, who leads the International Committee of the Red Cross in Africa. “This is a sign of transparency. We are unhappy about it, and we are very sorry.”

In a statement issued after the audit was released, the Liberia National Red Cross Society said prosecutors were probing the troubling claims.

The Liberia National Red Cross Society said that “new leadership wishes to inform the general public that significant progress is being made to avert the re-occurrence of the situation and put in place strong measures to investigate and legally pursue any persons involved in the fraud saga,” the statement said.

Ebola survivors and rights groups in Liberia say the Red Cross‘ apology is not enough and want its officers accused of fraud to be prosecuted.

“It’s my prayer that the government hangs all those individuals who stole our money,” said Joseph Susso, 20, a student at the University of Liberia. “They don’t deserve to live because they are murderers themselves.”

Mr. Susso said his parents died of Ebola in 2015 because the family had no money to hire an ambulance to rush them to a health care center on time. Had Red Cross officials used the money effectively, he said, his family would have survived.

“I’m suffering right now because of a few individuals who decided to pocket millions at the expense of millions of lives,” he said, sobbing. “I have nobody to pay my [university] fees right now because I lost all my parents. They didn’t deserve to die.”

Members of the country’s Ebola Survivors Network demanded that government officials who colluded with the Red Cross face justice. They also want to send a signal to donors helping in future crises.

“This is unacceptable,” said Henry Tony, a member and former vice president of the network. “While Liberians were dying in their numbers from the disease in 2014, other Liberians in top positions of responsibility were stealing funds sent to save them.”

The pressure has forced the government to disband the Liberian National Red Cross Society board and investigate the organization. Red Cross and government officials also have implicated Fayiah Tamba, former secretary general of the Liberian Red Cross Society, and the head of programs, Precious Dennis, in the scandal.

But no legal action has been taken against them or anyone else.

“We need justice because we lost our people unfairly,” said Thomas Sanko, a taxi driver who operates in the capital, Monrovia. “We are ready to hold demonstrations to pressure the government to prosecute all those involved.”

Ms. Sayeh supported Mr. Sanko’s idea.

“The government should act immediately and arrest all these evil people who don’t care about others,” she said. “They have no reason to continue living. They have made me a widow, and many children are orphans because of the mistakes they made.”

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