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Bones, Ashes at Liberia Crematorium a Reminder of Ebola Trauma

Pedestrians walk past a sign reading "Ebola disease outbreak" outside the Ministry of Finance in Monrovia, Liberia, Jan. 12, 2015.
Pedestrians walk past a sign reading "Ebola disease outbreak" outside the Ministry of Finance in Monrovia, Liberia, Jan. 12, 2015.

The furnace has been extinguished at a crematorium for victims of the deadly Ebola virus near Liberia's capital Monrovia but a row of barrels filled with ash and charred bone are a reminder of the darkest days of the outbreak.

The seven barrels containing human remains are lined against a black wall. A sheet of paper taped to each says the date the bodies were incinerated but there is no way of identifying them. Small piles of ash lie scattered at other places on the site.

Authorities believe they are close to beating the Ebola virus in this poor West African nation, which together with neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone bore the brunt of the worst outbreak on record of the disease.

More than 3,500 people died of Ebola here over the past 10 months but now there are just 10 confirmed cases according to the government, which hopes that figure may fall to zero by the end of next month.

With the worst seemingly past, Liberia is gradually starting to deal with the loss, but for many people it is hard to properly mourn loved ones whose bodies may never be recovered.

Burial plays an important part in West African culture - with mourners often touching the corpse at funerals - in an intimate and spiritual farewell to their loved ones.

Dehmietay Dehmie, head of the volunteers who operated the crematorium, believes he burned the bodies of his three sisters, who died from Ebola, but has no idea where their ashes now lie.

"They were brought here but I could not recognize them because bodies are brought in body bags," said Dehmie, who - like other members of the cremation team in Boys Town - has been ostracized by the local community.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government decided to start mass cremation at the height of the epidemic in August after scores of people contracted Ebola at traditional burials.

The disease - which has no known cure - is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of the infected and mourners were exposing themselves to high risks of contracting the virus.

The decision received the backing of Medecins Sans Frontieres - the medical charity that took the lead in fighting Ebola - which provided the incinerator for the Boys Town site.

It sent shockwaves through communities, with some families interring their dead themselves rather than see them cremated. Nonetheless, the government says it helped to bring the outbreak under control in Liberia more swiftly than neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea - which did not take such action.

"Cremation is not our culture. It was due to necessity that we had to cremate people, but it worked very well," said Assistant Minister of Health, Tolbert Nyensuwah, the head of the government's Ebola task force.

With specialized teams trained in safe burial techniques to prevent infection, victims are now being interred in a 50-acre cemetery by the highway to the Roberts International Airport.

The ashes of victims at the crematorium will be transferred to the cemetery at a special ceremony, Nyensuwah said.

'Intimidated into submission'

Residents of Boys Town - a coastal area 20 km southeast of Monrovia - want compensation for health risks, emotional trauma and social stigma after hundreds of victims were burnt at the crematorium, which stood largely unused since Liberia's brutal 1989-2003 civil war.

"We were not consulted," said spokesman Tibelrosa Tarponweh.

He said armed police arrived on August 2, sealed off the crematorium and started delivering corpses. "They intimidated us into submission."

"How can anyone feel witnessing on a daily basis the bodies of fellow citizens dumped and burned, and the smoke of their remains streaking our air and our homes?" he asked.

None knows exactly how many people were burned here, but the crematorium team say hundreds of bodies passed through between August and December, when the incinerator was shut down. An MSF spokesman said that the volume of bodies was so high it was impossible to identify them individually.

"We hope the government will dispose of the ashes in a dignified way, for instance with a memorial where the names of all the victims could be engraved," Yann Libessart said.

Estalla Nelson, speaking at a memorial service for her cousin Alexander Anderson who died of Ebola, said cremation could prolong the trauma for families.

"It is going to linger in the minds of people that your loved one died and you could not see the body," she said.

The government is discussing compensation with the community. The toll has been heaviest on 28 men who volunteered at the crematorium and say they have been ostracized by residents.

"People take us not to be normal humans .... People are threatening to chase us out of the community," said J.T. Josiah. "We have been sleeping here in the crematorium."

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