Families frustrated over graves of loved ones at Palm Grove Cemetery vandalized, looted
It was blue skies and fair weather in Monrovia on Decoration Day, March 10, but a blue mood for most families, frustrated at not being able to locate the graves of their deceased loved ones buried at the Palm Grove Cemetery in Central Monrovia.
Rebecca Willie, currently in her 60s, has a double frustration. Her daughter died more than twelve years ago and she (Rebecca) was unable to locate her child’s grave, located at the Palm Grove Cemetery on Decoration Day, a public holiday set aside by law for Liberians to pay homage to their departed loved ones.
Like many other Liberians on Decoration Day, which comes annually on the second Wednesday in March, Rebecca went to the Palm Grove Cemetery to decorate her daughter’s grave. Unfortunately for her and for many others, she could not locate the grave that she had decorated on previous Decoration Days, leaving her with grief that she has been in since 2008 when she lost her daughter.
“I live in Sinkor. In 2008 I lost my daughter and we brought her body here and buried it. Since then we have been coming here on every Decoration Day, but today, we are frustrated because we can’t find the grave. Where I know we buried my daughter is broken and many other graves are seen there, some [on top of] each other,” Madam Willie lamented.
The Palm Grove Cemetry has since come under attack by the fast emerging vulnerable group of drug addicts and criminals, popularly referred to as ‘Zogos’. Predominantly homeless, they are known to make their abode in abandoned buildings and cemeteries. Sources among the zogos admit they break into the graves to rob the dead of their clothing and caskets and also use the graves as a room for their personal lodging. It has also been established that they extract the bones of the dead, which they grind to powder for smoking.
Some families who cannot find a place to bury their dead tend to use the already congested and desecrated Palm Grove Cemetery by locating an empty grave in which to bury their dead.
Many families yesterday found it unfortunate that their hopes were dashed and their mission unaccomplished as graves of their deceased loved ones at the Palm Grove Cemetery on Center Street, Monrovia, could not be identified for decoration.
Rebecca said she loved her daughter while she was alive and continues to love her even in death but, being unable to locate her grave, she is feeling more distressed as though her daughter had just died all over again.
Many attributed the unprecedented situation to the lack of care on the part of the government to protect the cemetery which also hosts the remains of former Presidents Joseph Jenkins Roberts and William R. Tolbert, as well as many former high profile government officials.
Decoration Day is a national holiday in Liberia which came into existence on October 24, 1916 through an Act of Legislature and it is observed on the Second Wednesday in March of every year, since then.
Nationwide, all offices and businesses are ordered closed for the day by law, while cemeteries across the country are inundated with people who go out to decorate the graves of their lost loved ones.
Palm Grove Cemetery is a public facility — a national asset under the control of the Monrovia City Corporation. In years past, under the Mayorship of Mary Broh (now head of the General Services Agency) the entire cemetery was fenced in with a beautiful steel fence and gates. Ahead of every decoration, the municipal authority would also send in a cleaning crew to at least level the grass to enable families to easily locate the graves of their loved ones for the decoration exercise. But this year, everyone was on their own.
“When government wants to use this place for a different reason, let them make it known publicly. Let them call on all who buried their lost loved ones here and tell them what is the next way forward. But failing to provide security to get out these drug addicts is sad,” Madam Willie noted.
According to her, it is a shame that the government is not doing anything to ensure that the Palm Grove Cemetery is protected and kept clean always, more so that former Presidents and many great men and women who served the country before are buried there.
Weadaye Buwier traveled from the United States of America to visit the grave of her late grandmother to give it a facelift, but was “depressed and saddened,” she said, upon realizing that the Palm Grove Cemetery is literally inhabited by drug addicts who continue to break into graves and remove anything they consider valuable to trade for money in order to support their drug habits.
“This is a memorial day. It is something that happens in almost every country around the world, but I am heart-broken to have come only to see what I am seeing here,” Buwier said.
She added: “This place should be a tourism site, knowing that our first President was buried here and another, William R. Tolbert, even though killed brutally in a Coup, was also buried here. Why can’t government see reason to protect this place? This place is dirty and I am seeing many people declining to even clean graves they identify as ones in which their lost loved ones were buried.”
According to Buwier, she has been informed that some people have overnight gone to the cemetery, paid the drug addict youth and exhume the remains of their deceased loved ones in fear that, should they contact the government directly, it would cost them so much than what they may even afford.
“This is bad for our country. The stench is too much and the fear of being harassed and robbed by all these drug addicts is looming every day. It is a pity, but we hope something is done to mitigate the current challenges,” she told the Daily Observer.
Disadvantaged Youths (Zogos, zogolines)
Blama Burphy, 32, has spent two years already on the streets of Monrovia loading commercial taxis as a means of getting money to support his drug habit.
He told the Daily Observer that while it is true he and his friends fear being harmed by people and rejected in society, they are all not that bad.
“Me, to tell you the truth, I na (have not) stay long here yet. I only spent two years and what I know is that there are some people who live around here that always come to pupu (defecate) and throw dirt (trash, garbage). We (zogos) are not the only ones messing this place up,” Burphy said.
About why and how he got on the streets and addicted to drugs, Blama blamed peer pressure and lack of family support for his woes.
“I gah (have) my people in New Georgia and I can go there sometime to take bath and eat, but my people don’t like to see me. Each time they see me, they are afraid of me because I may steal their phones and other things to sell and buy drugs to smoke,” he explained.
He said when he began using drugs, he thought many times to let it go but was difficult because he had no one from his family who could be patient with him and advise him without bringing him to the public.
Blama wishes that he will one day leave the street one day to go back home and live a normal life.
For her part, Cecelia Siah Tamba, 37, and a mother of five (all girls), said no drug addict residing on Center Street should lie that he or she has not tampered with a grave at the cemetery.
“The boys mainly among us can dig the graves, remove the bodies and take anything important. We sell those things and buy our opium to smoke,” she confessed.
Ms. Tamba added: “Some people bury their people with very expensive things like rings and some of them, even their coffins can be fine. We can take those coffins and sell to funeral home.”
Meanwhile, Cecelia said she is uncomfortable with the life she lives now and wishes every day that someone or an organization can go and pick her up for rehabilitation and reintegration into the community.
She explained that she became addicted to drugs when her children’s father allegedly abandoned her for another woman. She also resorted to prostitution as a means of survival.
The Daily Observer exerted efforts to contact City Mayor Jefferson T. Koijee, and Madam Mary T. Broh, General Services Agency Director, who is in charge of government’s assets, for comments, but their phones were perpetually off up to press time.