EVERY evening for months the sky would turn orange as Liberia’s Ebola crematorium roared into life, its towering flames reducing victim after victim to ash and blackened bone.
It was a ritual that the villagers of Boys Town came to dread, the thick black smoke and smell of death permeating their homes and spreading alarm in the community.
More than 10,000 people have died since the epidemic broke out in Guinea and spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the incinerator became a symbol of the panic that enveloped the region.
By the time it shut in January, as Liberia began to emerge from the worst outbreak of Ebola in history, the facility had burned 2,000 men, women and children, their ashes tossed indiscriminately together into metal drums.
“When they used to burn the Ebola bodies the odour was unbearable to us. Our children were getting sick. Many people left the town to go elsewhere. I hate to hear about this place called ‘crematorium’,” says Boys Town resident Anita Zoegai, 45.
Now the families of those sent into the flames are finally being allowed to claim their remains, after the ashes of all 2,000 were handed back at a traditional ceremony over the weekend.
Tribal chiefs and religious leaders gathered at the crematorium, 35 kilometres (22 miles) east of the capital, for the traditional handover of 16 drums holding the remains.
Alien to Liberian culture
Cremation is alien to Liberian culture, which values traditional burials in which mourners bathe the body in oil and even embrace the dead to honour them and send them onward to the next life.
But these funerals were also identified early on as a key factor in the intense spread of the virus, with the bodies of the recently deceased particularly infectious.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued a decree in August mandating the cremation of Ebola victims as a critical step in halting the epidemic.
The Boys Town crematorium opened in September, when the local Indian community offered the government full access to a facility they had built in 1986.
Villagers, suddenly choked by fumes and offended by the clinical disposal of bodies on their doorsteps, staged sit-in protests on the road to the crematorium and pleaded for its closure.
The crematorium workers, all Boys Town villagers, remember bitterly how they were shunned by friends and neighbours when the installation opened.
“No one wanted to come near us and our families. We were totally rejected,” says Otis Tarwen, 32, recalling how the workers’ wives were refused service in the local markets.
Sarah Doe lost her mother to Ebola, and says the incineration of the body made her loss all the more difficult to bear.
“Though I understand why, I cannot find room in my heart to forgive those who burnt her body. I hate to hear the word ‘crematorium’,” the 45-year-old tells AFP.
The government remained adamant, however, that there was not enough free land or resources to guarantee safe burials, and insisted that the despised facility remain open.
Kola nut and gratitude
Then in December Liberia’s traditional chieftains came up with a solution—a 50-acre (20-hectare) plot of land by the highway to Roberts International Airport, 70 kilometres east of Monrovia.
The site was big enough for huge numbers of burials, and its convenient location made it a viable alternative. So ministers approved the idea, and shut down the incinerator.
The metal drums were transferred from Boys Town at the weekend, after Liberia’s traditional council chief Zahn-Zahn Kawo presented the community with a kola-nut, a gesture of gratitude for the hardship they had endured.
Somewhere in those 16 drums, now stored at the new cemetery, are the remains of Helena Tarr’s sister, who died in April last year.
“I did not even see her body. We went to the Ebola treatment unit and we were told that she had passed. The doctor said we could not see the body,” the 35-year-old told AFP.
“They only showed us a Red Cross truck with bodies piled up in it, and they told us my sister was among (them).”
The drums will remain in a hut until the families decide how their loved-ones should be buried and whether individual gravestones or a joint monument might be more appropriate.
Jacob Freeman, 23, lost his father, mother, two sisters and brother—his entire family, in fact—to Ebola.
“I have been praying, asking God to give me the opportunity to see where their remains are. Now God has answered my prayer,” he said.
“Even if all of them are buried in one mass grave, at least I will have somewhere to go pay my respects.”