At 9 p.m. each night, it begins. Thunderous sounds announce its arrival, piercing the silence that accompanies sundown in the swampland near Boystown, Liberia. The concrete building from which the sounds emanate shakes from the impact, rattling the colorful houses on the dirt roads nearby. Hot orange flames leap into the sky bringing with them the sickening, inescapable stench of death.
The cremation of Ebola’s newest victims has begun.
It’s a disturbing display of a practice the town has come to know well, one that has ruined its crops, polluted its waters, and scorched its trees—uprooting the core members of its community and spreading panic to neighboring villages. After failed attempts to get the government to intervene, the community will host a sit-in Tuesday to block the road on which the bodies have been arriving since September. For one night, they hope to achieve peace.
“Not a single night passes [without them] burning bodies," Albert Reeves, a community leader in Boystown, told AllAfrica. “The scary thing about it is the heavy explosives; we don’t know whether it’s the heads of the dead bodies that explode like that… it’s like a mini-earthquake; the entire ground shakes.”
The cremation of Ebola victims in Liberia began in August, when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an order saying that it was a critical step in halting the spread of the virus. It wasn’t until September that Boystown entered this arena, when a local Indian community offered the government full access to a crematorium they’d built there 30 years earlier.
After a quick renovation to allow for the burning of more bodies, the program launched, without even the slightest mention to the community of Boystown that the smell of burning bodies would soon be keeping them awake. J.S. Datuawa Cammue, an officer at the government’s lead Environment Protection Agency (EPA), says his agency attempted to persuade the government not to do it.
“It’s very dangerous to the environment in the first place,” says Cammue. “We decided it wouldn’t be good to cremate the bodies.” When the government ignored this recommendation, his agency recommended that they at least ensure that it was scientifically sound and backed by the community leaders. From the EPA’s current assessment, it is neither. “There were no consultations whatsoever with people in the area,” says Cammue.
While Tuesday’s sit-in is a desperate plea by the members of Boystown to move the crematorium elsewhere, it spotlights holes in the government’s entire plan behind these so-called burials. The same lack of organization and concern that left Boystown in the dark may be fueling misinformation about the state of Ebola in Liberia. Cammue, whose agency has now performed a thorough assessment of the current cremation process at Boystown, is extremely concerned.
“There is one fundamental issue,” he says. “We don’t know what happens to the ashes.”
While the dead-body management teams may know the identities of the deceased upon arrival, the EPA cannot find any proof that the crematorium is keeping even a single record. “There is no actual system in place to account for everything, that is the real concern,” says Cammue. “Where are the bodies coming from?”
While the EPA laid out specific ways that the government could catalog the remains, such as individual marked boxes for the ashes, Cammue says they are being combined at the moment. “Nobody can assure anybody and some of these authorities at the crematorium have very little background in science.” The procedure, says a spokesperson from the World Health Organization, doesn't even make sense. "Cremation is not necessary to have safe and dignified burial," Tarik Jasarevic tells me.
Even the community members in Boystown have noticed. “The most frustrating part of this crematorium here is the carelessness of the Ebola team,” says Reeves. “The gloves, plastic bags—even the nose protectors they use—are being dropped all over the place. Children could see these things like toys and take them to play with, which is very risky for us—they could get Ebola.”
Beyond the concerns about the current procedures—and the impact that this may have on the accuracy of the reported deaths of Ebola—is the damage it is doing to Liberians’ waning trust in their health-care system as a whole. A cremation leaves the family of the deceased unable to say goodbye to their loved ones and, more importantly, unable to properly guide them into the afterlife. In an attempt to protect Liberia from Ebola, the government’s plan to cremate the bodies of Ebola victims may be making things worse.
While Cammue says the government’s lack of organization on the project may be harming the relief effort, it’s also furthering the pain of its residents. “At one point they were going to perform a burial ceremony with the ashes,” he says. “But it’s not true because the way the conditions happen, they pile all the ashes into one place.”
For the majority of Liberians, whose burial rites involving washing and touching of the body form the foundation of their culture, it’s a tragedy of unfathomable proportions—forcing an abandonment of tradition that causes profound pain for the victims’ family. “We are not used to burning bodies and hearing the sound of our fellow Liberians’ bodies exploding—it’s painful,” Carolyn Doelu, a 30-year-old resident of Boystown told local news. “The odor of burned bodies enters my house. At night, when they start burning them, I find it very difficult to sleep.”