MARGIBI COUNTY, LIBERIA —
With Liberia being Ebola-free since the beginning of May, the government is discussing plans for erecting a national monument to remember the horrific time during which more than 4,000 Liberians died.
One possible site is a cemetery outside Monrovia. It was built to get the crisis under control and symbolically stands for the magnitude of the human tragedy of the epidemic.
The cemetery at Disco Hill is an hour's drive from Monrovia. The place got its name from a disco that stood here until it was destroyed during Liberia’s first civil war. The site was opened last December to bury Ebola victims safely and with dignity.
When the Ebola crisis first broke out, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf decreed that Ebola victims be cremated - to get the crisis under control and stop one major cause of infection.
This was a practice unheard of in Liberia. Worst of all - many victims' ashes were mixed together in the chaos of events - depriving relatives of the chance to say goodbye and commemorate their loved ones.
At first, people believed the same would happen at Disco Hill.
“People actually followed the drop-off cars to make sure the bodies were not gonna be [going to be] disappeared, they not gonna be burnt," said Matt Ward.
Ward is the safe burial manager with the American NGO Global Communities, which is in charge of the cemetery. He said his 100-plus Liberian co-workers can be very proud of what they achieved.
“Once people started to coming and seeing that their loved ones were actually being buried as close to Liberian tradition and the Muslim traditions as the health circumstances allowed, people became a lot less reticent," said Ward.
The whole objective was to be able to stop the cremations and get people away from clandestine burials to avoid their loved ones being cremated. So I think we’ve been very successful, and it’s a great feeling," he said.
Many of those who were buried here were unknown. During the chaos, not everyone was properly identified upon admission or discharge from the hospital.
During an outbreak, every body has to be buried with safety precautions as a possible Ebola victim. Safe burial manager James S. Poindo says they often buried 8 to 9 people a day. This pace, and the stress of laying unknown people to rest, - often babies - then coming home and seeing his own children at play, took a toll on him.
“Even my wife was somehow afraid because Ebola is what we’ve commonly seen deadly. If one gets it, the whole family falls. So she was like somehow afraid. Even once when I started go home she somehow stopped to come around me," said safe burial manager James S. Poindo.
Matt Ward says he feels Disco Hill would be an appropriate site for a national memorial to the crisis. Not with marble crosses and a perfectly manicured lawn - like Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington - but like a conventional Liberian cemetery, with cement casings and more wild-growing plants.