At the height of the Ebola outbreak in early August residents of the community on the road to the fisherman city of Marshall, Margibi County witnessed a bevy of armed police around the vicinity of the crematorium. They were guarding what would become the first mass cremation of bodies of Ebola victims. For the first time in some two decades, residents began seeing smoke in the premises of the crematorium.
Community spokesman, Tibelrosa Tarponweh recalls: “On the 2nd August 2014 at about 8:30 p.m. there was a batch of heavily armed police who descended on this small community and happened to have come from town and I was stopped. They told me I could not move and could not move because there were some special operations that were being carried out. After about 20 minutes, they let me pass. But just before I turned to my house, I saw smoke coming out of the crematorium.”
The crematorium, built in 1986 and regulated by the Indian honorary counsel in Liberia, stood there years before the houses began mushrooming in Boys Town, named after a now disestablished boarding schools for troublesome lads before the civil war in 1990.
The government of Liberia has shifted from cremation to burial, with a 50-acre cemetery for Ebola victim established on the highway of the Roberts International Airport. The crematorium has been close for some three weeks. Assistant Minister of Health, Tolbert Nyensuwah on Saturday said an exit plan had been developed to transfer the remains of Ebola victims being contained in barrels inside the crematorium.
Tarponweh told newsmen Friday that even with the plan and temporary closure of the crematorium, the government infringed on the rights of the community.
“We were not consulted; there was no awareness. They intimidated us into submission and they brought in the bodies and did what they wanted to do,” he lamented in an interview before the crematorium.
“We went to the Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia and they were surprised and somehow aware but they said they could do nothing about that.
“We went to the senator of Margibi County (Senator Oscar Cooper) and other relevant authorities. We met with the head of the cremation team, Madam Siatta Bishop but were leading us to nowhere.”
Now the community is seeking compensation. Tarponweh concedes that the crematorium once stood aloft at its location and may have posed no threat to human lives when it was built during the regime of slain President Samuel Doe but argues that people’s rights surpass those of properties.
“The legal implications are there but not everything that is legal is right. They (government) have to be ethical. We must blend law and ethics. We are where we are now. People who are residing here are Liberians,” he remarked.
“Before the mass cremation started, we had been contemplating on how we would engage the Indians on the relocation of the crematorium to an isolated location, and the cremation here of Ebola victims was the curtain-raiser.
“We support the fight to eradicate Ebola. On the other hand, how can anyone who lives in this area feel witnessing on a daily basis the parading of the bodies of his or her fellow citizen being dumped and burned with the very smoke of those remains striating our air and our homes?
“The psychological and environmental cruelty is unimaginable. So the campaign is this: we don’t want this place to ever be used by the Indians or the government; we want counseling services provided for the community, including those who were hired; and some benefit package be organized for the community for the environmental and health harm that they have caused us. When we say package we mean services to the community. We believe people have been exposed to a health hazard and it will cause them problems in the future. We don’t have clinic around so we have to travel to Monrovia or Harbel (Firestone concessional area) to go to hospital.”
Assistant Minister of Health for Preventive Services also head of the Liberia’s Ebola response, Tolbert Nyensuwah said government there could be compensation in a program the government was already creating.
“I don’t know what’s in the package yet, but I know we are working on an exit plan (transition from cremation to burial) with the community and those (cremators) that worked for us there,” Assistant Minister Nyensuwah told MICAT website (www.micatonline.com).
“We are transitioning from cremation to safe and dignified burial. We now have a national cemetery that the government secured. And I do know that we had a stakeholders’ forum there with Muslims and Christians and the stakeholders’ forum went very well. We already started doing burials at the cemetery,” he added in a Saturday interview.
“Cremation is not our culture. It was due to necessity that we had to cremate people, but it worked very well. Right now the safe and dignified burials that are being done are a part of the interventions that were done and account for the reduction of the Ebola Virus Disease in Liberia and so were in the right direction. Today we are reaping the benefit.”
On the other hand, the 28 young men who work at the crematorium want the government organize a program wherein people can once more accept them into their communities. They say people are afraid of them, think they are supernatural and so stigmatize them.
“People feel negatively about us. People take us not to be normal humans,” explained J.T. Josiah, spokesman for the cremators. “We don’t purchase things from people around here; we don’t interact with people around here. We’ve been totally excluded from community issues around here. People are threatening to chase us out of the community from now to anything.
“Since we started operating this crematorium on August 3, 2014, we have been sleeping here—in the crematorium.”
Josiah and his colleagues, most of whom are construction contractors and sought contracts in Boys Town, volunteered their services to end Ebola. They received some training in no time and then began cremating at once.