BOYS TOWN–At the height of the Ebola epidemic, smoke from the cremation of bodies would darken the sky here by early morning. The incinerator rumbled like a mini-earthquake, shaking the ground and neighbors’ emotions.
“Even the little ones, when they used to see the trucks pass with dead bodies on board, they would call our attention, saying: ‘The people are bringing bodies again; We can see their hands and heads hanging.’ Then we would lock our children indoors. It was very, very fearful,” says Doris Reeves, who runs a small shop across from the crematorium’s entrance.
The frightening incinerator has been quiet for months now as Liberia has succeeded in stopping Ebola transmission nationwide. Yet for many, the horrors of the months when Ebola stalked the land are not forgotten and the building’s mere presence is a source of trauma.
As Liberia marks the second anniversary Wednesday of its first confirmed Ebola cases, many neighbors say they want to see the crematorium torn down so they can try to forget that terrible time. Nearly 5,000 died in Liberia, more than half of them cremated here in Boys Town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the capital, Monrovia.
“Community people want to break it down; but we have been talking to them to engage the government constructively,” community chairman Albert Reeves said. “But we cannot continue to control their emotions.”
For now, no decision has been made on what to do with the building, which sits on an acre of sandy land. The site is currently empty, its single black gate shut with a padlock. Items of personal protective equipment — the masks and gloves responders used when handling bodies to try to avoid infection — are scattered about, dark reminders of the scenes that unfolded there.
The crematorium had been built decades ago by Hindus from Liberia’s Indian community. But in August 2014 at the height of the Ebola epidemic here, the government banned traditional burials. That decision was made after it became clear that many of the cases stemmed from funerals where mourners had physical contact with the bodies of Ebola victims.
The cremation mandate was highly unpopular, leading some to hide victims at home so that they could still hold traditional burials. Later authorities ruled that victims’ remains should be preserved when possible, requiring the crematorium’s 50-some workers to pack bones into barrels after the incinerator’s flames died down.
The work was gruesome and extremely dangerous, bringing them into contact with highly contagious corpses day in and day out. Heavy rains would sometimes extinguish the fires, meaning the men would have to repack the bodies and start again, recalled William Tokpah, a cremation worker who is now unemployed.
He and his former co-workers now accuse the government of abandoning them once the outbreak got under control and there were no more bodies to cremate.
“I did that to help my country,” said Tokpah. “But since then, the government has not paid any attention to us.”
Tolbert Nyenswah, the head of Liberia’s Ebola response, denied the government had turned its back on those who assisted with cremations. But he said there are limits to what the government can do beyond trying to provide psychological support.
“We feel obligated to every Liberian. We went through a lot of tough time as a country,” Nyenswah said.
Reeves, the chairman of a local development committee, has urged authorities to find a new use for the site.
“This crematorium could be turned into a recreation center or a hospital or probably a memorial shrine to remove the mindset of our people,” Reeves said.
Jiplah, one of the cremation workers, agreed, saying keeping the crematorium in its current condition forces him to relive too many painful memories.
“As I speak to you,” he said, “there are bones in holes inside here still.”