The cameras are rolling. Callum smiles at you, stacks his papers, says, “And with us tonight, we have Ali Cornwall, anchor and former West Africa correspondent for BBC London. So, you were recently in Sierra Leone at the height of the Ebola epidemic, is that correct?”
You nod, ruthlessly ripping open the wound of that trip, and launch right into it, knowing Callum will let you talk. You describe the white-suited medical professionals wrapping and carrying corpses by hand, four to a body, filling common graves that were later doused and lit on fire. How you risked infection yourself, entering a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, stepping over a forbidding pile of corpses into a stench that made you gag, made you doubt the scientific knowledge that Ebola is not airborne. The walls were thick with flies. They carpeted even the living, who lay on cots in their own waste with buckets of vomit at their bedsides. You nearly lifted a little girl in a pink dress because at first glance she looked like your niece, except with blood and vomit all around and the empty eyes of an old, old woman who has learned to expect nothing. Near her, a dead man with rigid clenched hands, like he was still trying to hold on to life.
It blurs so neatly into your experience as a hostage, that when Callum prompts gently, “It means something, I suppose, that you’re so affected by this, since you’re no stranger to harrowing experiences.” You’re at fever pitch yourself. You acknowledge that traumatic experiences can’t be compared, but here is an epidemic affecting people who look like you, and how can you not be affected? You start talking about the medical convoy that got you out of Monrovia, arguing with patrols about quarantine, a woman named Halima you met in Makeni, Sierra Leone, in a hospital where she lay mildly feverish but not yet vomiting or hemorrhaging; she was confused; she had abided by the warnings, touching no one, not even to kiss her dead child goodbye, not even her husband when he fell ill; when he returned from hospital and quarantine she embraced him, they made love, and life went on as normal until she woke up ill. She knows she is dying. These hospitals are the white man’s death-traps. You have to agree. You saw nurses in t-shirts and blue-jeans, no protective gear, not even gloves, not refraining from touching their patients to check temperature, clean them, feed them, offer human comfort. You saw family members grieving over their dead loved ones according to custom, touching and kissing their faces and hands. You did not see enough education about preventing the spread of disease. How could Halima have listened to all the warnings, after all, and not have known that Ebola survives in semen for 82 days after symptoms have resolved?
It’s not the same thing as your hostage experience, but you know Callum was extending an opportunity to you, so you strive to make the connection: the need for freedom of information, spread by locals. Burning a local journalist alive sends a clear message. So does the gang-rape of a woman whose face had been bashed in, her eyes glinting dark in her swollen face. The way she reached for you, where you lay a tied-up, silent witness, as the soldiers took their turns before shooting her in the head. No warning. They wanted you to see what they could do to you, too.
You use Callum’s words to make the gallows-humor joke, “My stupid courage, I suppose, that I put myself in these situations so I can come home and relate it to viewers here at home.”
Callum is flicking his papers with a finger. A decisive tic, not a nervous one, processing something problematic you’ve done that it’s too late to change. You shake off the storytelling haze, suddenly alert.
“Maybe my mistake,” he says. “But in our last interview, I believe you said you were blindfolded.”
You were, weren’t you.
You’re on live television. The Nightly News. Representing BBC London.
Your blood runs cold.