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In Liberia, Ebola Makes 'Pariahs' Out Of The Sick, Says NYT Reporter

Helene Cooper grew up in Liberia and still has family there. Reporting on the disease last month, she says when she saw a sick, little boy get out of an ambulance, she "completely lost it."



November 6, 2014

Guest: Helene Cooper

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Helene Cooper spent two weeks last month in Liberia, covering the Ebola epidemic. She's the pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and flew into Liberia with U.S. military troops whose mission was to build new Ebola treatment centers. More than 2,000 Liberians have been killed by Ebola. And Cooper reports that the epidemic has crippled the country's health system, ground the economy to a standstill and made international pariahs of anyone with a Liberian passport.

Cooper reported from a Liberian Ebola treatment unit, spoke with survivors of the disease, interviewed the country's president - Cooper is completing a book about her - and got a grasp of how Ebola is changing daily life. Cooper is quite familiar with daily life in Liberia since she was born and raised there. Her great-great-great-great-grandfather was one of the country's founders. After the coup in 1980, when Cooper was 14, her family fled to the U.S. Two of her sisters still live there. Helene Cooper ended her period of self-quarantine last Thursday.

Helene Cooper, welcome to FRESH AIR, and I'm glad you're well.

HELENE COOPER: Thank you, Terry. So am I.

GROSS: Did you actually want to go to Liberia and cover the Ebola epidemic there, or, you know, were you nervous about going?

COOPER: I really wanted to go, and I was terrified before I went.

GROSS: So last Thursday was the end of your 21-day incubation period, so you're totally in the clear now. What precautions did you take when you got home? And how did you decide what your approach was going to be?

COOPER: I came back here assuming that I would just not touch anybody. That was the - 'cause in Liberia, what we did was we don't - you don't touch people. I hadn't quite done - I think with Ebola, we're all sort of making this up as we go along. And at the time that I came back, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn't go to work, or I wouldn't go out and that sort of thing. And I didn't. I mean, I went to my moms house, and it was sort of a modified self-quarantine. But I came back assuming that I would just not touch anybody. I knew I wasn't going to touch my 4-year-old nephew, and I thought I would just treat everybody else that way.

And in fact, the day after I got back I went on - a couple of days after I got back - I went on "Meet The Press" and did an interview on there and then started thinking, as it was this time for me to go to work the next day, you know - I had gotten a few emails from colleagues saying, you know, are you going to quarantine yourself? And I got the impression that people were a little bit nervous at the idea of me coming into the office and just going around - also going to the Pentagon. I was getting sort of comments - mostly jokes from colleagues that I work with, other reporters and agency officials. But I started to realize that people would feel uncomfortable around me. I didn't think I had Ebola, but it's not hard for me to work from home. And it felt as if that would just be the easiest - easiest way to avoid making people uncomfortable.

GROSS: So I'm just wondering, before we talk more about what you actually witnessed in Liberia, what do you think of the mandatory quarantines that the governors of New Jersey and Maine wanted to institute? What do you think people should do when they get back from one of the West African countries that have big Ebola epidemics? And what should health care workers do who have been exposed, do you think? Yeah.

COOPER: I think health care workers who have been working in West Africa in Ebola treatment units probably know more about how the disease is spread and whether or not they've - you know, are actually in danger of it than anybody else. We seem to have a lot of fear in this country, which is really surprising when you consider the fact that I don't think any American has died of Ebola. And there's such a tiny, tiny chance that anybody here is going to catch it. The reality is you don't catch Ebola by walking down the street or even, you know, you're - it's health care workers that get Ebola. It's the people - family members of people who have the disease who are are getting sick and that's it. It's not that contagious so - and I think a lot of people don't understand that. I didn't understand that before I went to Liberia.

That's the thing that we need to remember; the people who have Ebola and are contagious are sick, and they're very, very sick. And they're, you know - they're vomiting at home or they're in treatment units, and they're too sick to be walking around. So, you know, I think it's very important to listen to the science.

GROSS: What were the guidelines you followed in Liberia to protect yourself?

COOPER: I did not touch anyone. That was basically what a CDC doctor who was on my flight going in there told me. He said, if you don't touch anybody, you will not - you will be fine. After about a week there, a Liberian friend told me that I should wear long sleeves, to make sure that people didn't inadvertently touch me. And I did that, and it was really hot. And this is - it's both rainy season - it's very, very humid in Liberia. And it's like wearing - for me, wearing long sleeves in the heat is hard. You're sweating a lot.

GROSS: You write about how difficult it's been for people who have family members who are sick with Ebola in Liberia because how are you not going to take care of your family member if they've, you know, vomited all over the room? Like, what are you going to do? So can you share with us some of the stories that you heard from people about how they were dealing with sick family members?

COOPER: That's the hardest thing, I think, about the disease is it does make pariahs out of the people who are sick. And it - you know, we're telling the family people - the family members of people with Ebola to not try to help them or to make sure that they put on gloves. And, you know, that's, you know, easier - I think that can be easier said than done. A lot of people are wearing gloves, but for a lot of people it's really hard.

One of the things - two days after I got to Liberia, Thomas Eric Duncan sort of happened in the U.S. And, you know, I was getting all these questions from people in the U.S. about why did he, you know, help his neighbor? Why did he pick up that woman who was sick? Which is believed to be how we got it. And I set out trying to do this story about the whole touching thing because the whole culture of touching had gone away in Liberia, which was a difficult thing to understand. I knew the only way I could do that story was to talk to Ebola survivors because then you can ask people who actually contracted the disease because they touched somebody else, you know, why did you touch somebody? It's not like you didn't know that, you know, this was an Ebola - that, you know, you were putting yourself in danger. So why did you do it?

And in all the cases, the people I talked to there were, like, family members. There was this one woman, Patience, who contracted it from her daughter who - 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca - who had gotten it from a nanny. And Rebecca was crying, and she was vomiting and, you know, feverish, and her mom picked her up. When you're seeing a familiar face that you love so much, it's really, really hard to - I think it's a physical - you have to physically - to physically restrain yourself from touching them is not as easy as we might think.

GROSS: You write about one person named Ephraim Dunbar whose mother was very sick. He helped take care of her, then he got Ebola. And what did he tell you about taking care of his mother?

COOPER: He said that he tried really hard to not touch her, that he knew that she probably had Ebola, so many people - he was from Dolos Town, and it was an area outside of Monrovia, that was really hard-hit. And he thought - he knew his mother probably had Ebola, but he was, you know - she hadn't been - he hadn't been able to get her into a treatment until. And he was helping feed her to keep her hydrated. He said he was giving her milk and tea. And he said he really tried very hard. A lot of times he wore gloves, but there were times that he didn't. And he thinks that when he was helping her to drink, that his skin touched hers.

But he also said, and I remember the quote I used, he was like, that mama, she the one who bore me. And he's speaking in Liberian English, but what he means is this is the woman who birthed me. And for him it was a very matter-of-fact thing. And I totally understood what he was saying. He's like, this is my mother; I'm going to take care of her when she's sick, and I'm going to try to protect myself. But at the end of the day, I think what he meant was that it just comes down to caring so much about somebody else that your own life doesn't seem as important as you might think it normally would be.

GROSS: So he got Ebola, and he survived. But he lost a lot of family.

COOPER: He lost his entire family, which was the other thing that struck me. I hadn't realized that before I went to Liberia, but that so many people that get Ebola - unless your are a health care worker working in an Ebola treatment unit and you get it from a patient, chances are if you get it, your family has got it because you've gotten it from a family member. And so his entire family - you know, his mother, his father, his sisters, his brothers, you know, he went through the whole list for me, and they had all died of Ebola. He had survived. He described this really painful struggle. He talked about hiccupping blood, and - while he was in the treatment unit - and thinking that he was going to die. He said for five days - they were five of the worst days of his life when he was hiccupping blood. And he finally comes out of it, and it's to a completely different life because his entire family is gone.

GROSS: So how come he was able to get to a treatment unit but his mother wasn't?

COOPER: Liberia, from the beginning, has been racing to catch up with the disease. So there were - I think when I first got to Liberia, the percentage of Liberians who had Ebola and who had made it to treatment units was like 17 percent, which is really, really, really small. You know, this is a treatable, fightable disease, but you've got to get people to help. And this is a very poor country that just didn't have very many treatment units. So you had people who are constantly being turned away, sick people coming to these treatment centers and being told there are no beds.

My first day there, I saw that sort of thing, even though it started - the story started to turn around once I got there. And by the time I left, there was talk of a lot of empty beds. But in the beginning and during the worst parts of the epidemic, you saw so many, you know - the bed-to-patient ratio was nowhere near where it needed to be. So there were sort of five Ebola patients in Liberia for every, you know, every bed. And so people were turned away. And in the case of Ephraim Dunbar, I don't know if they tried - 'cause I think he got this - he was part of this - his family got this - this Dolos Town case was one that spread like lightning through this small, small community. And people got sick very quickly. There was a lot of denial at first about whether it was Ebola or not. People thought that there'd been a wedding - I think it was a funeral or something, where people were poisoned or ate some bad food, and they were saying that that was the problem and why people were getting so sick. So it took a long time for people in that community to accept that this actually was Ebola. So all of that played into it, I think.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Helene Cooper. She's the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and spent two weeks last month in Liberia covering the Ebola epidemic. She grew up in Liberia, and we're going to talk about that a little bit more later. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more about what you experienced on this trip in Liberia. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Helene Cooper, the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. She spent two weeks last month in Liberia covering the Ebola epidemic. She grew up in Liberia. She has family members who are still there. And she wrote a memoir about her life in Liberia several years ago. So did you go to an Ebola treatment unit?

COOPER: I did.

GROSS: What did you see there?

COOPER: That - God, that was a really hard day. The second day there, I went to ELWA 3, which is an Ebola treatment unit right outside of Monrovia that's run by Medecins Sans Frontieres. Before I went...

GROSS: That's Doctors Without Borders.

COOPER: Doctors Without Borders, yes. I don't know what I was expecting before I went there, but I - I knew I wanted to talk to survivors, and I thought that was a good place where I could get people who were coming out, but I also wanted to - to see what people were up against. And as a reporter, you know, we kind of put a shield on before we go into stories that are incredibly that - that, you know, are going to be horrific. And I thought I would be a lot better than I was at getting that shield on, and I was doing fine through the unit. I stood - I talked to the doctors. I didn't go into what they call, the hot zone, where their most critically ill people are because I don't need to - I'm not going to be interviewing somebody who's dying of Ebola, for instance.

But I was in areas where suspect case - cases were and where people were coming in. And what hit me the most was in the triage area, where the ambulances were coming in and bringing people, and they had set it up. I was standing behind the triage workers who are then behind some plastic netting. And so the - one ambulance came in with a driver, and he had two people in the back of his ambulance. And the triage workers are yelling at the driver telling him what to do - stand away, wash your hands, take off one pair of gloves, take - you know, before you open - OK, now open the back door - the ambulance go - wash your hands again, step aside. And they're doing all these painstaking steps to protect the driver from the people he's brought in his car 'cause there's a partition between, you know where - there's a partition between the driver and the ambulance - the patients.

And he finally steps aside and now eight or 10 minutes have gone by, and then they yell at the ambulance, OK, come out now. And, you know, about a minute goes by and then this - these really tiny, tiny little legs come down. And it's a 9-year-old boy, and he's sick. He is very, very - he seems so incredibly small. And the ambulance - the triage workers are, you know, talking to him and trying to talk him through it. They can't - they can't go up to him and help him right away. They're trying to determine first if he actually has Ebola, and if he does, then it's going to be somebody in a hazmat suit coming up to him. So they tell him to sit on a plastic chair that's separated from them, and he stumbles over. He manages to sit down. And then they interviewed him, but the interview is them yelling at him across this area. And he just looks so small. And they're yelling (foreign language spoken), you know, (foreign language spoken). And he - he's answering, but it's kind of hard to hear him. And I remembered they asked him, you know, how old are you? And he said he was 9. And they said, you know, you've been - how many times have you been vomiting? And he said plenty. And this interview that's shouted across the space is going on and on. And then they asked him, you know, the question that seals it for them, and they say, how many people have died in your house? It was just, you know, how many people in your house have died, you know, recently in the last few days? And he said three.

And that pretty much does it, you know. They know he has Ebola and it was just - I was - I lost it. It's - 'cause he's this kid. He's this little boy. He's lost his parents. He's lost - and I wasn't prepared for what writing - what being that close, that face-to-face with this sort of hopelessness and this sort of loss would do. And it was really hard for me to get myself together again after that. I tried - I checked again later on, and he was still alive a few days later. But I don't, in the end, know what ended up happening to him.

GROSS: You know, you described how difficult it is transportation-wise just get to a hospital, you know, or a treatment unit in Liberia. You know, most people don't have cars. So you say you have to, like, walk across this, like, really - a road that would be in really bad shape and then, like, walk into town and then hire a taxi. So I'm thinking, like, if you have Ebola, you're going to walk into town and then get into a taxi?

COOPER: It's hard. Transportation in Liberia is very, very difficult anyway and particularly now during the rainy - the rainy season is just ending. But the roads are - are out of control. They're like the potholes, you know - journeys that normally in the dry season would take half an hour, would take an hour-and-a-half by car. So there's a lot of mud and that sort of thing.

There are Ebola - there are a few ambulances in Liberia that go and pick up people, but there are so many patients. So all of that has played into why this bed-to-patient ratio is so off-kilter, even though I feel now that we're a few weeks behind on that part of the story because I think that's turned around.

GROSS: What that fewer people are getting Ebola now?

COOPER: There are many more empty beds now in Liberia - in the treatment units in Liberia - you're not having and, you know, it's - it's way too soon to say that cases are coming down. But that's the first, you know, sort of signal. There are many, many more treatment centers now in - in Liberia have empty beds. And at the ELWA 3 treatment center, the one that I went to, even while I was there, there were 40 empty beds at that time. It was a treatment center with a 100 beds.

So you're not seeing - you're not - you're no longer seeing Liberia, the cases of people being turned away or bodies piling up at the gates of a treatment center. That has turned. I don't want to say that's - you know, I still think it's too early to say that we're, you know, we - we've turned or bent the curve. But a lot of people do seem to believe that we may be close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

GROSS: And people don't think this is because people are just dying at home instead of getting...

COOPER: That's - the problem is nobody knows where this is. There's nothing - which is why I want to be very careful when I say, you know, that there are empty beds. There's a possibility that more people - that people are dying at home. But people - if you think about it, Terry, people want to live. So it's - if you can get yourself to an Ebola treatment unit where you know you have a better chance because, you know, they're going to try hydrate you, you know, you're going to get the fever-reducing pills that you need - it's very basic care.

Most people are still going, you know - are going to try because they're going to do what they - you know, so the whole idea - so one of the theories being put out was that, you know, people are hiding Ebola bodies at - you know, and burying them. You're not supposed to bury them now. They're supposed to be burned 'cause the bodies are very, very contiguous. But that doesn't really - when you think about that, that doesn't really wash because that doesn't - that wouldn't explain why somebody who - who isn't, you know, who's still alive would not go to a treatment center.

GROSS: Helene, you know, you're in the process of finishing a book on the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. And you - you talked with her. You visited with her on your trip to Liberia. So you have a pretty good handle on how this epidemic is really hurting the country as well as individuals who are sick and individuals who have lost family members to the epidemic. You know, nonessential services are shut down, schools are shut, and you're right about - about how children are basically being shut up at home. Like, parents won't let them out.

COOPER: That part is so hard because schools - President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shut down schools in August as part of the emergency measures to combat the diseases. Nonessential government buildings are shut down. Workers are told to stay away - not come into the office. It's - so Monrovia, while still crowded, is much more deserted than you normally would expect. Traffic is much less. It's not - it doesn't feel like a ghost town because there's still plenty of people about and going on about their business, but Monrovia's usually teeming. And that part, you know, is definitely much more muted.

GROSS: Helene Cooper will be back in the second half of the show. She's the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and spent two weeks in Liberia reporting on the Ebola epidemic. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Helene Cooper, The New York Times Pentagon correspondent. She spent two weeks in Liberia reporting on the Ebola epidemic. She has a personal connection to the country. Her great-great-great-great-grandfather was one of the founders of Liberia, Africa's oldest republic. She was born and raised there in what she says passed for the landed gentry. Her father had been the deputy postmaster general before becoming a businessman. Her uncle was the foreign minister. In 1980, a military coup overthrew the government. Soldiers murdered and disemboweled the president. After several harrowing days, Cooper and members of her family managed to flee to the U.S. Cooper was 14.

So, you know, Liberia is still recovering from a very long civil war. And just to put the Ebola epidemic in perspective, about 2,000 people have died of Ebola in Liberia. Over 200,000 people died during the Civil War.

COOPER: That's a really interesting and, you know, very salient point. And that's in part, I think, why Liberians are, you know - they seem a little bit more able to deal with the Ebola epidemic because they've been through so much worse. I was struck by the resilience of people in Liberia when I went back there. I was expecting full-blown panic, and I didn't get it. And I was expecting a level of hysteria that I didn't see there either. And that's because so many people in Liberia have been through worse.

There's nobody - you walk around the streets in Liberia and every single person of a certain age - the war ended in 2003. So every single person you meet of a certain age has a story to tell and is a survivor of some kind. It's a country of survivors. You have all these former combatants who were once child soldiers that we used to hear so much about. So many women - the incidences of sexual violence during the war and even after that was so high that you see these women who have literally clawed through hell and back to come out of this and survive. And now they're, you know, on the streets, and they're tending their markets. And still selling their wares and, you know, their potatoes and their oranges and that sort of thing. But they've been through things that you can't even begin to imagine. And so Ebola, as horrible as it is, is something that I think that the Liberians are sort of, you know - this isn't as bad as we've been through, so we can get through it.

GROSS: So, you know, you're completing a biography of the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and whatever progress she's made in getting the country back on its feet economically is being jeopardized by the epidemic. And you write that a lot of people in her Cabinet have left. Why did they leave?

COOPER: It's a long and confusing - you know, Liberian politics is very, very - a lot of that is political.

GROSS: So that's not just an Ebola thing?

COOPER: It's not, yeah, it's not Ebola. But on the progress that Liberia has made since the civil war and that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has sort of ushered inb that's very much in jeopardy now because, you know, Liberia's still a very fragile postwar, Third World country, where electricity is scarce around the country. It's coming back, but it's been a very slow progress. So much of the country doesn't have - still doesn't have running water. During the war the hydro-plants were bombed, and it's taking forever to get that back up and running again.

And there's been very little, you know - in the past few years, though, since the war, there's been much more foreign investment, there's been much more put into sort of rebuilding the economy. And the country's make a huge number of strides - you know, done very well on economic growth and GDP growth and unemployment had come down. And now all of that just screeched to a halt with Ebola because you saw - there's this phrase now that everybody in Liberia uses, force majeure. I'd never even heard of it before I went home. And it means, you know, a calamitous - some sort of catastrophic act that causes foreign companies to leave. And, you know, you don't have to worry about being, you know, sued or anything like that and so there's so many...

GROSS: Oh, it's a clause in a lot of insurance policies, too. If it's a force majeure, which probably means like, you know, an earthquake - I actually don't know exactly what would be covered, but the insurance company's off the hook (laughter).

COOPER: Yeah, it does. But what's really weird, Terry, is now you go down the street, and you see these little straggly kids running around who've not even been to school. And they're like, yeah, force majeure, and they'll point to an empty building. And I was like - at first when I got there, I was like, what are they talking about? And then I realized, it was like this horrible awakening of, oh, yeah, everybody, people have fled and after so many years - you know, Liberian civil war was so horrible that Liberia was very much - during the Charles Taylor era were like pariahs on the world stage. Nobody went there. Nobody flew to Liberia. There were no airlines going there.

Just as recently as three months ago we had British Airways, Air France, Delta Air Lines, you know, we had all this - Kenya Airlines - there was so much happening there business-wise. And people were building. You were seeing hotels and businesses coming up. And, you know, there was much more industry and much more commerce. And all of that has slowed down, and this was happening at a time where you really, you know - we so much needed that because we had such a big hole to dig ourselves out of, you know, following the civil war.

GROSS: So a lot of homes in Liberia don't yet have running water because the country's still recovering from the civil war. Do I have that right?

COOPER: Yes, because during the war they bombed the - rebels bombed the hydro-plant, which is what took out the electricity and the water. And it's been a ridiculous political free-for-all trying to get that going again.

GROSS: So how can you possibly cleanse yourself if you're in contact with a family member who has Ebola if you don't even have running water? I mean, I know there's chlorine, but...

COOPER: That's what makes it so much harder.

GROSS: Yeah, you even want to wash the chlorine off your body eventually, too.

COOPER: You do, but you don't. I mean...

GROSS: It's not like it's good for our skin. Yeah.

COOPER: Yeah, people are joking around about - oh, Liberians, we're all going to turn white because you now...


COOPER: So many Liberian houses now and villages and huts and all are seeing - there's a big jug of chlorine. Chlorinated water is sitting, you know - you wash your hands before you go in. And people after a while, your skin starts to feel just ridiculously slimy. And you smell like chlorine. It took me a while to get that chlorine smell out of my nose after I left.

GROSS: What kind of shape is the public health system in in Liberia? I read that in Liberia, there are fewer doctors, you know, proportionally for the population than in any other country.

COOPER: There are. It's a creaky - very creaky public health system that's nonexistent in the rural parts of the country. And that's been - one of the results of the war is that there's was this what they call this brain drain and so many people who went to get educated, get medical degrees or any other kind of degrees stayed away. You know, they went overseas to go to school, and they never came back. And so wooing these people back, this professional class, has been very difficult. But it's one of the goals that the president has set for herself, but she complains all the time about how hard and how difficult that has been.

GROSS: So what was it like getting home from Liberia? You had to be - had your temperature taken at the airport. You had to answer a lot of questions about what you were exposed to.

COOPER: I came in right before the mandatory questionnaires and the mandatory screening procedures at Dulles Airport, which is where I flew into. On the Liberia side of it, you can't enter the Liberian airport - Robertsfield - you can't even enter the premises of the airport without getting your temperature taken. So there's a guy at the gate, before you enter the terminal, before you enter even the airport property with a thermometer. And then right before you enter the terminal itself, there's a questionnaire you have to fill out that asks you in numerous different ways whether you've come into contact with somebody with Ebola. And you answer those, and then there's another chlorine jug and another guy with a thermometer who takes your temperature. You go in, and you check-in and go through passport control. And then it gets much more crowded at that point, but they're not testing Ebola. But right before you go to board your plane, there's one last temperature check. And then you get to the plane, and you are greeted by a phalanx of the SN Brussels crew and they were all in gloves and masks...

GROSS: 'Cause you were flying to Brussels, it was connecting flight.

COOPER: Right, I was flying through Brussels, yes. And they're all wearing gloves and masks. And I remember at first feeling very put out, like, oh, my God, this isn't very reassuring. And then I realized, well, at least they're still flying here, unlike so many other airlines that just stopped their flights so. And then when we got to Brussels, there was nothing. Brussels we just came through, and I had a long layover in Brussels. And I took a nap at the airport. And then I got on my United Airlines flight from Brussels to Washington. That was completely normal. Nobody asked me anything. And then when I got to Dulles - I have global entry, that trusted travel thing that you're just supposed to swipe your passport at the kiosk. And I did, but instead what it usually does, which is spit out a receipt and say, you know, you're free to go, it said go report to a passport agent. And that was because my flight history showed I was coming in from Liberia.

So I went to an agent and he - I said I'm coming in from Liberia, and he said, oh, go to the other agent. And he pointed me to somebody else. And I went to the next one, and he said thank you for telling me, and he put on gloves before dealing with my passport and then sent me to another agent in customs who asked me a bunch of questions. And then I was free to go.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Helene Cooper. She's a Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and spent two weeks in Liberia, the country where she grew up. She spent two weeks there last month covering the Ebola epidemic. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Helene Cooper. And she spent two weeks last month in Liberia covering the Ebola epidemic. She's the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. And I should mention that last Thursday was the end of her self-quarantine period. Liberia is a country very close to you. You were born there, you grew up there and your great-great-great-great grandfather - I think I got the right number of greats in...

COOPER: Four greats.

GROSS: Four greats - was one of the founders of Liberia. He was on the first flight of...


GROSS: Ship. (Laughter) How stupid was that? Yeah, he was on the first ship in 1820 that arrived in Liberia. It wasn't even called Liberia yet. It was - what was it called?

COOPER: Just West Africa.

GROSS: Just West Africa. So he was one of the...

COOPER: He was one of the freed men.

GROSS: So he was a freed slave?

COOPER: Well, he had never been a slave, but he was a freed black. And he - Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society, which was this group of Northern abolitionists and white slave owners who sort of banded together to sort of support the Back-to-Africa movement, which was looking at trying to send - they didn't like the idea that there were so many freed blacks living in the United States at the same time that there were enslaved blacks. So the idea was to take all the freed blacks and send them back to Liberia so the enslaved blacks would not have this example of freedom to look at. And it was sort of a combination of that and many other factors.

But my great-great-great-great grandfather, Elijah Johnson, was on the first ship - The Elizabeth - that sailed from New York Harbor to Freetown, which was then Sierra Leone, and eventually to Liberia and helped found the country. And these ships kept coming from 1820 all the way until the 1880s, with ship after ship of freed slaves and freed blacks. And a lot of these were slaves whose slave owners freed them under the condition that they would then leave the United States and go back to Africa. So that's how Liberia was founded.

GROSS: So the white people in this movement wanted the black people to, like, go away. But...

COOPER: Pretty...

GROSS: But what about people like...

COOPER: A lot of them did. The slave owners - the slave owners wanted them to...

GROSS: What about people like your grandfather who voluntarily went? Your great-great-great-great-grandfather, do you think he wanted to leave...

COOPER: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: ...And wanted to go to Africa?

COOPER: So many of them volunteered to go because they thought this was an - A, it was an opportunity for them to be in charge of their own destiny. When I was doing the research for my book on this, I found my great-great-great-great-grandfather's journal, the journal that he kept when he was aboard the ship - The Elizabeth - that sailed back. And it was so weird for me to be able to see his handwriting and what he wrote about fights on board and all that. But he wrote a lot about wanting to be his own man and wanting to be in charge of his own destiny.

And there were times where his writing was really almost poetic. I remember one that jumped out at me is - he was always - for reasons I don't understand, I think they fought a lot aboard that ship. But he had one passage where he said that, you know, today John Brown whipped his wife while he was up on deck. I think this - he is a very dull lamp for me to be taking with me to a dark continent, but I have faith in my God. And it was like a lot of that sort of things that I couldn't really relate to, but it was a really good window for me into just what he was like.

GROSS: So did this start, like, a new class system in a way?

COOPER: It did.

GROSS: Yeah, you have these, you know, African-Americans going to Africa and settling a place and calling in Liberia - as in liberation - but there were already Africans living there.

COOPER: Exactly. And that's what brings so much of the ambivalence that I have today when I look back. I think these were incredibly brave people. But at the same time, they were also deeply flawed. They set up the same sort of antebellum society that they had escaped from in the United States, except this time they were the upper class, and the Africans who were already there became the workers and the laborers and the servants. And, you know, this unbalanced, two-tiered system existed until 1980, when there was a coup - a military coup and a group of soldiers - native Liberian soldiers - led by Samuel Doe overthrew the government and established their own rule.

GROSS: That was the government that part of your family was in, the government that was overthrown by the coup.

COOPER: That's right. My cousin - we call him my uncle - was the minister of Foreign affairs. I had several other uncles who had been in the government.

GROSS: Your father had been in the government.

COOPER: My father had been in the government. He had resigned a few years before the coup. But he had been in the government. He was shot, but he survived. During the coup, my cousin, the minister of foreign affairs, was executed on the beach by a firing squad. Many other family members were targeted, and we ran away after that.

GROSS: You watched your uncle be executed on TV with 12 other people who were executed.

COOPER: I did. It was my - it was on my 14th birthday. And we had - my family - my mom and my sisters and I had run away from our house because we had been attacked. And my mom had been gang-raped by soldiers who had come when she had exchanged herself to protect me and my sisters. And after that, we ran away from our house and went to stay with my aunt at my aunt's house closer to town where we thought we would be safer. And I remember I was still going - I went to school. Even after and during that time, we still went to school. And I woke up that morning on my birthday knowing that these military trials were going on, went to school and came back, and it had gotten very dark that day. I still remember how the clouds had overcome - this is April and the rainy season was about to start. And when we got the news that they had executed the 13 government ministers, including Uncle Cecil, on the beach by firing squad. And we turned on the TV that night, and they played it.

GROSS: What was your emotional reaction to that?

COOPER: That was horrible. I don't know - I think up until that moment, I still thought that the violence at the beginning in the opening days of the coup were just an aberration and that, you know, things would calm down after that. But seeing this government-sanctioned violence and seeing people celebrating it in the streets, you know, I'd sort of been living in a - I'd been a very sheltered child. And I think I had been living in a bubble very much. And this was sort of the moment when you - you know, that whole - there's this whole two-week period that sort of, you know, you're confronted with the fact that you've been sheltered. You've been living in this imbalanced society that, you know, where you have all this privilege, but so many people around you justifiably hate you. And it was the combination of that and seeing people celebrating it, you know, the women - the men and women in the street who were celebrating and cheering my uncle and the other ministers as they were taken to their deaths on the beach was just - it was really, really hard to take, and it was very - it took a long time for me to come to grips with that and with what had happened.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Helene Cooper. She's a Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and spent in two weeks in Liberia, the country where she grew up. She spent two weeks there last month covering the Ebola epidemic. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and my guest is Helene Cooper, the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. She spent two weeks in Liberia last month covering the Ebola epidemic. She grew up in Liberia and still has family members there. Last Thursday was the end of her 21-day self-quarantine.

You've said that, like, African women are just incredibly strong. They've been - so many of them have been through so much. Your mother is such a great example of that. She works so hard to protect you from the soldiers who twice broke into your home during the coup. And one day, she really talked back to them and said, like, what are you going to do - shoot women? You know, we're done with you. Like, you know, get out. And she just, like, left with you kids and walked upstairs. But they came back the next day and gang-raped her. And I'm wondering, like, how did she survive that? Like, do you think that left her with permanent scars, or do you think that she just was able to deal with it?

COOPER: I've wondered that so long and without getting into my mom's head because it's a hard thing to talk to my mom about. She definitely survived that. There's no question in my mind. And I think for her, it would've been worse if they had raped me and my sisters. Then I think for her, she felt - ended up feeling that what she did, she protected her daughters.

GROSS: And that was the bargain she made.

COOPER: And that was the bargain she made. And so I would like to believe that that sort of helped her in the years after that. But, you know, that kind of thing, of course, is going to leave scars. We didn't talk about it that much. I think she told us right up front. We knew what happened that night because she came, you know - she had locked us up in her bedroom and said don't open the door, no matter what. And when she finally came back upstairs, the first thing she said was those damn soldiers gang-raped me. And she went and got in the shower. So it wasn't as if this was something that was hidden from us. We knew what had happened. But it's not something that she dwelled on because at that point, the country was still in incredible turmoil.

We didn't know if we were going to live or die. We didn't know if my dad even was still alive at the time because they had been looking for him. And so she was so, I think, bent on protecting us and getting us out that that churned up a lot of her energy. And I still remember - you know, I hadn't seen her cry at all during all that time, you know, even when she was so close with my uncle who was killed. And I remember when the Pan Am flight finally took off from Liberia - and this was a month after the coup - and she started to sob on the plane right after we took off. And it was the first time I'd seen her crying since all of that had happened. In the years that followed, you know, after that, she was very - she was seemed to me to be very driven on getting us - getting her daughters through school and through college and just making sure that we would be all right.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned in your memoir about all this that you were able to grow up in Liberia without racial stereotypes and without seeing yourself as a member of a minority group in your country. And do you think that that was really helpful to you when you got to America? That, you know, you might've been seen as a member of a minority group once you got here? But you had in your head none of that. You know what I mean?


GROSS: You didn't have any of the history of oppression and all the things that came with that - the history of slavery - because you grew up - I mean, your great-great-great-great-grandfather was a founding member of Liberia.

COOPER: Yeah. Sometimes I think I had a superiority complex instead of the, you know, the other way around. I think that probably helped me a lot. I think a lot of people that grow up here - particularly when you look at this country's own history with race relations - have so much more to deal with because so many people are being told constantly that they weren't good enough. And so it's a bigger burden, and when I arrived, I didn't have that sort of baggage.

So when you come at it from a position where you feel pretty confident to begin with, it's much more easy to dismiss racism as something that's just stupid. When I got to college, my freshman roommate in college ended up not wanting to room with me because she didn't want to room with a black woman. And I remember calling my dad on the phone that night. And he laughed. And I laughed with him, too, because it was just sort of, like - it just seemed completely, like, idiotic. And I think that helped - probably helped - a lot for me to dismiss things that so many people who grew up here in the black communities had lived with for so long, and so it may have been harder for them to dismiss. I think I had it a lot easier every way around.

GROSS: How did you decide to be a journalist?

COOPER: I read "All The President's Men."

GROSS: Seriously? Really, that was it?

COOPER: In my junior year - well, actually it's very connected to what happened in Liberia as well as "All The President's Men." But the military coup that happened in Liberia in 1980 completely blew up my world. And I wasn't expecting it to happen. I was so clueless. And I didn't - I wasn't as plugged into all this stuff that was going around me. All the social turmoil and all this, you know, the level - not just the injustice, but also the fact that so many people were so angry and the level of anger towards - I just was completely clueless. And I remember when the coup happened and my whole world blew up, thinking, I never want to be this clueless again. I want to know what's happening around me. And that sort of opened me up to journalism to begin with. And then in my junior year in high school, we read "All The President's Men," and I was hooked.

GROSS: And did it make you think about, like, the coup at all? Because that was like the violent overthrow of government and "All The President's Men" was good reporting...

COOPER: A not-so-violent...

GROSS: Forcing, yeah, forcing a resignation?

COOPER: Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Yes, it did. It was just really cool for me to see how powerful the press could be. And that you could go after these institutions in a legitimate way and you can expose them. And I think, you know, we all are very - we can be naive and very idealistic at that age. But I wanted to be a part of that press. I wanted to be - they seemed to bring an outsider-ness to it. They weren't part of - it didn't seem as if they were part of the establishment and I like that as a high school junior. They just seemed really cool.

GROSS: Well, Helene Cooper, I want to thank you for talking with us. And thank you for your report.

COOPER: Thanks so much, Terry.

GROSS: Helene Cooper is the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. She spent two weeks in Liberia reporting on the Ebola epidemic. You can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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