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Best of Slow Journalism: The men who burned Liberia’s Ebola victims

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

In her New York Times article ‘They Helped Erase Ebola in Liberia. Now Liberia Is Erasing Them’, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Helene Cooper tells the harrowing tale of 30 men hired to cremate bodies in Liberia at the height of the Ebola pandemic in 2014. The burners devoted themselves to the stomach-turning task of mass cremation, playing a crucial role in ridding their country of the virus. But rather than being hailed as heroes who took on a nightmarish task for the sake of their country, the men have been shunned and some even kicked out of their homes. One year after the cremations stopped, this poignant article explores how the extreme situation soon took its toll on the burners who disposed of nearly 2,000 bodies in just four months.

The Ebola outbreak caused such havoc in Liberia that the government was quick to turn to global health specialists for help in curbing the virus’s deadly rampage. The disease was spreading so fast that local traditions took a back seat to a globally recommended approach. The message was clear: Ebola-ridden bodies had to be burned. But putting that into practice was not so easy as age-old Liberian burial traditions consider it a serious taboo. As Cooper explains, “many Liberians believe that if the dead are not properly buried, they will come back to haunt the living”.

When body burning was introduced in the town of Marshall, outrage was so intense that the Liberian government stationed soldiers and police near the cremation site to keep angry villagers away. Many of the burners were left with no one but each other to turn to and resorted to living together in just one room, taking to “drinking and drugs” to bear the ostracisation and the nightmares that came to them at night. One of the burners, William Togbah, confides that “no night goes by when he does not dream of seared flesh”.

Cooper creates a vivid sense of place in this piece, using quotations in dialect and skilfully weaving hard fact with personal stories. She builds a heartfelt case against these men’s erasure from society. A year on, as the country gets back on its feet, they have been left behind.

You can read Cooper’s story here.

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