March 12 this year was celebrated throughout the country as Decoration Day, the day cemeteries were whitewashed, cleaned and the dead remembered.
Families were shocked to come across evidence of plunder of the resting places of their deceased loved ones and many confessed they could not stand the humiliation.
Although police have blamed miscreants for the broken graves and tombs, an investigation conducted by the Daily Observer revealed that many of those who have made the historic Palm Grove Cemetery their home are Liberians who have become victims of circumstances and have nowhere else to live.
Many of the tomb dwellers are described as people that the Liberian society has forgotten and as a result they live with the dead in the crumbling tombs and graves.
A young man who identified himself as Junior Toe does not know his age. He says he has lived with the dead for years, but he could not tell how long he has lived there. He shared with journalists his instructions for new grave dwellers.
“When you look for a tomb, the body can’t be fresh,” he advised. “It has to be really dead and then you can clear it away into a bag.”
The chilling nature of those instructions apart, the Daily Observer learned that many of the grave dwellers are compelled to live there because they have nowhere to go. Toe said, “I want to leave this place.”
He said “Some of us call ourselves 'the friends of the dead,’ but people outside of here treat me like I'm not there. I'm not a part of society anymore."
Among the grave dwellers are women, several of them prostitutes who survive by trading sex. One of them is Mercy Howatt, 17, who has worked six years on the streets.
Mercy said she lost her parents during the war and with no one to turn to, so she began to share a tomb with two friends. A reporter described her this way, “Her eyes are yellowed from drug abuse and her jacket sags on her emaciated frame.”
She admitted, "I have sex with men in the cemetery. For 10 minutes I make LD200." Mercy explained that the cemetery vaults provide better shelter than street living. She also admitted to taking drugs, which she says she could not sleep without the substance.
Tomb dwellers are in their hundreds and a child advocacy group, Street Child of Liberia, which supports over 1500 students and has reunited 600 street children with their families, wants to change the future of the tomb dwellers.
“We have conducted research and come to the conclusion that it is highly important for the government, corporate Liberia and NGOs to urgently join forces with us to resettle these grave dwellers,” said Street Child’s program director, Michael John Bull.
In an interview with the Daily Observer yesterday, Bull said, “It is cheaper to assemble resources now to provide intervention for the tomb dwellers.
“If we don’t provide resources to solve the problem now, it is reasonable to conclude that our society will pay a higher price when the tomb dwellers eventually become a (greater) menace to society.”
Bull said many of the tomb dwellers are involved in petty burglary to sustain negative habits, including drugs and prostitution, which have affected their self-esteem.
Outlining intervention methods, Bull said the first thing is to identifying all the tomb dwellers and then provide food to get their attention.
“The next step is psychosocial counseling and then tracing their families, but the greater intervention is providing them with education,” Bull said.
He suggested that since many of the tomb dwellers are older, they may have to attend the Advanced Youth Program supported by USAID.
Bull said the last intervention is sustainability. “After going through a series of programs, they need financial empowerment to sustain themselves and maintain their new identities so that they don’t return to their old life style.”
He said Street Child is ready to embark on the project, but need material and financial resources to begin. He is asking the Liberian government, corporate institutions, NGOs and philanthropic Liberians to support the project to rescue the grave dwellers.
Many of the tomb dwellers suffer from tuberculosis, runny stomach and rashes, one of them told the Daily Observer. “Many of us are dirty and we don’t eat properly.”
During the observance of Decoration Day, the Daily Observer ran an editorial that made several suggestions to protect Palm Grove cemetery. This newspaper suggested that first, the Liberian government, including the Ministry of Justice and its Joint Security apparatus, should call an urgent meeting to decide what must be done to protect all the nation’s cemeteries.
Secondly, all gates to the Palm Grove should be repaired, reinforced and its walls refurbished with whitewash periodically. Thirdly, a twenty-four hour security system, comprising officers of the Liberia National Police and the Armed Forces of Liberia should be deployed at the Palm Grove to deter any criminal minded persons from attempting to go anywhere near the cemetery.
Fourthly, the Monrovia City Corporation should create a permanent crew to clean up the cemetery on a daily basis and finally City Hall’s team of street sweepers should also be deployed on Center and Gurley streets bordering the cemetery to keep them permanently clean.
Those suggestions, “along with the recommendations advanced by Street Child could be the surest way to resettle these Liberians who feel they have been abandoned by our society and put an end to the desecration of the cemetery,” advised Street Child’s Michael Bull.