Thirty young men spent months burning the bodies of the infected in Liberia. A year later, many relatives and countrymen can’t forgive them.
MARSHALL, Liberia —
It was around 3 p.m., when Sherdrick Koffa noticed, in neatly written script, the name on the body bag he was preparing to set ablaze.
It was the name of a classmate. The two grew up together, had played together as children. Now, a few days into his job burning the Ebola dead, work that had already estranged Koffa from his family, he was expected to burn the body of his friend.
He did it. First he sprayed the body with oil to help it catch fire. Then he carefully laid the body, along with several others, upon the kindling on the altar of the crematory. He stacked more kindling on top.
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Finally, as the kindling was lit with a torch, Koffa stripped off his protective gear and stalked off the field, away from the acrid smell of burning flesh.
He did not stop walking until he got home, and once there, he opened first one bottle, then two, of cane juice, the highly potent Liberian equivalent of moonshine. He drank all night, until he passed out.
Fifteen months later, Koffa is still drinking heavily.
It has been more than a year since this deeply religious country embraced one of its biggest taboos — cremating bodies — to rein in the Ebola pandemic. In that time, the majority of Liberians have started to move on.
But such is not the case for some 30 young men who were called upon during the height of the crisis last year.
As bodies were piling up in the streets and global health officials were warning that the country’s ages-old traditions for funerals and burials were spreading the disease, these men did what few Liberians had done before: set fire to the dead. And for four months they did so repeatedly, burning close to 2,000 bodies.
Villagers protested near the site, hurling abuse and epithets at the men they called “those Ebola burners them.” The government deployed police officers and soldiers along the dirt road to the crematory site in a field to keep angry locals from the men.
Their families shunned them as they pursued their grim work. One man — Matthew Harmon — who worked near the crematory site in Marshall, said his mother refused to see him, telling him never to call again.
“My ma said, ‘You burning body?’ Then I’nt want see you no more around me,” Harmon said.
The ostracism darkened what was already an abysmal time for the men, so much so that now, a year after the country has ceased the cremations, their lives remain virtually destroyed.
Their nights are spent with alcohol or drugs, habits they said they acquired to get through the mass burnings. One burner, William Togbah, says no night goes by when he does not dream of seared flesh. Several of the men, shunned by friends and family, now live together, sharing the same room in a house not far from the crematory site.
“I’m not in a good life now,” Togbah said.
For the most part, Liberia has come out of its long national nightmare. Ebola cases flare up sporadically, with three new infections reported last month, and experts warn that the disease may continue to pop up for years to come.
But children are back in school, crowding sidewalks in their uniforms as they head home in the afternoon. Football games have resumed, with a packed Antoinette Tubman Stadium recently hosting 10,000 people to watch their beloved Lone Star national team take on, and lose to, the African giants from Ivory Coast.
Yet the men continue to be tormented by what they saw and did. Initially, they used an incinerator to burn the bodies. But that method left human bones to greet them when they returned, grisly remnants of the vibrant people who had lived their lives in this West African country.
Togbah and several others kept using the word “erase,” as in, they erased the traces of the Ebola dead for their country. In turn, their country has now erased these young men.
Many Liberians still blame them for burning the dead. While they received certificates of appreciation from the Health Ministry, they were not part of the recognition ceremony held by the president to thank health-care workers for their efforts during the outbreak, an omission the young men took to heart.
“We missed some people,” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in an interview, adding that there were too many people to thank, and that she hoped to hold another event recognizing these men.
“It was no easy thing,” said Fredrick Roberts, one of the burners, recalling the first night when the trucks came with the first 12 bodies. Terrified of getting too close to the Ebola dead, everyone scattered into the bush at first.
“I had no clue what I was getting into,” said Ciata Bishop, who was assigned by the president to set up the crematory operation.
That first night, the men wore blue cloth jumpers and plastic gloves, but government officials later gave them protective clothing, gloves and boots. Day after day, night after night, the trucks came with the bodies. The burners unloaded them, sprayed them with oil and piled them on an altar.
“It smelled very bad,” Koffa said. “Like meat, except different.” His voice caught and he stopped talking, overcome. He and the other burners had gathered near the crematory field. They are never far away from it now. The place they hated so much has become a home. Nowhere else will accept them.
“They would bring us 30, 60, 100 bodies a day,” Koffa said.
Because the incinerator was unable to turn the bones to ash, the men switched to burning bodies on pyres set upon two altars in the field. It was more time-consuming, but at least at the end there were only ashes to deal with.
Then suddenly, it was over. Last December, under intense public pressure and with the number of Ebola deaths declining, the government said it was ending cremations. A new 25-acre parcel had been secured, government officials said, to bury the Ebola dead. For the 30 men who carried out the task of burning more than 2,000 Ebola dead, the ordeal was over.
Except it wasn’t. “People still mock at us,” Roberts said.
Through the ordeal, the men said they thought they would get government scholarships when it was all over. They thought they would be hailed as heroes, that people would apologize for shunning them. They are still waiting.