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bearing witness

A team of funeral agents specialised in the burial of victims of the Ebola virus put a body in a grave at the Fing Tom cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone.Florian Plaucheur/AFP / Getty Images

Bearing Witness: 2014 — The Globe and Mail looks back on the cataclysmic news events of 2014 through the eyes of the people who were there – be they bystanders, participants or journalists. Their accounts shaped our perceptions, while their witnessing the events changed their lives.

The smells were overwhelming yet familiar. As I parked my little motorbike across from the Kingtom Cemetery, the tropical West African breezes bore only chlorine, garbage and exhaust fumes. There was no sweetness in the air. Ebola, and its devastating consequences, had settled over the land and polluted the breezes.

According to the World Health Organization on Dec. 7, there were 1,768 dead and 7,897 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Freetown, the capital and crowded home to just under a million, regularly records one-third of all new cases, making it the epicentre of the disease.

Ebola has ravaged Sierra Leone. It has infected people. It has killed people. It has wiped out families. It has orphaned children. It has killed doctors, nurses and health-care workers. It has tainted the social fabric of the normally friendly and open Sierra Leone that I know.

My first visit to the Kingtom Cemetery was several years ago when I attended a friend's funeral. It was a sad event. My second visit, this past August, was sad for a different reason. I was mourning for a nation. As I strode the well-worn community path through the cemetery to the Ebola section, I could feel my throat tightening. It was the fumes combined with fear and frustration. The tightening grip of Ebola is choking Sierra Leone.

The caravan of dilapidated minivans deposited the dead. Some of the vans carried as many as seven black or white body bags soaked in chlorine. As one minivan emerged from the cemetery trail, another entered. The procession of Ebola dead seemed to be unending. Abdul Rahman, the cemetery caretaker, continually warned me not to touch anything and not to let anything touch me. He also warned me to keep watch for snakes and avoid the wild pigs roaming the outer border of jungle.

Originally, I remember thinking how lovely the huge cotton trees were rising out of the dense green foliage of ferns and mini-palms. On this, my second visit to the cemetery, much of the jungle had been hacked away to make room for the graves of people who had died from Ebola. Freshly covered graves, open graves and crowded mounds of dirt replaced the giant fern leaves. The moist, warm intimacy of the rainforest had left.

White-suited, protected burial teams hauled the body bags, some obviously containing small children, across the bumpy mounds of the recently buried. In some graves, the larger body bags were buried with the smaller ones. According to Edison Konteh, one of the burial-team leaders, they'd picked up an entire family from a nearby neighbourhood. There was no one to attend the funeral. No prayers or biblical readings were recited as dirt was backfilled over the bodies by the shirtless, young gravediggers.

I remember Abdul Rahman saying, "This is not our culture," referring to the lack of family members at the graveside. True. Sierra Leoneans celebrate and mourn when someone dies. I've been to enough funerals over my five years in Sierra Leone to know.

When I visited the Kingtom Cemetery a third time in October, the graves were crudely demarcated by a small branch of palm placed unceremoniously by one of the gravediggers. It was an attempt to mark and memorialize the graves. I thought the gesture was very kind. But a gravedigger reminded me, "There will be no mourning here because we don't know who's in the graves." At the time, there were no adequate records beyond Abdul Rahman's hand-written notebook of who was collected, unloaded and buried.

At the end of November, I visited the Kingtom Cemetery again. Abdul Rahman looked tired. The gravediggers had new rubber boots. Some of the graves had scraps of paper stuck to the palm leaves indicating the names of those buried. The Ebola section had grown and the jungle was almost completely hacked away. I didn't see any pigs but the scattered graves seemed to go on and on. The caretaker told me they'd buried almost 3,000 bodies since July. I could see no mourners but the line of minivans delivering bodies was just as long if not longer.

And the smell … the smell was the same. Chlorine, exhaust and sadness hung in the air, choking the life from the country.

Stephen Douglas is a media-development consultant and journalist based in Freetown, Sierra Leone.