Freetown — Volunteers calling themselves the Death and Destitute Organisation bury Freetown's unidentified bodies, frustrated by lack of action by the authorities
It's first light at King Tom cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and rain is falling on the freshly exposed dirt that will soon cover 26 corpses.
A man in white protective overalls stands inside a grave while other men pass him the body bags. He arranges them at his feet, until the pile passes his waistline. He climbs out, and the rest of the bodies are put into the pit.
Mass graves are the end of the line for Freetown's homeless, destitute and unidentified dead. For the past 12 years, a group of two dozen volunteers calling themselves the Death and Destitute Organisation (SLDDO) have used their own resources to collect and bury the bodies, while the city authority denies the existence of both the organisation and the prevalence of unidentified bodies in Sierra Leone's capital.
"We started the organisation in 2004 with all volunteers and it's been the same system ever since," says Beatrice Peterson, an employee at the Connaught hospital mortuary in central Freetown and SLDDO's secretary general.
"If not for a fuel shortage, [the 26 bodies] would have been buried last week, but we don't have any financial support and most of us here have families to take care of. If the government won't support us or recognise us as an organisation, we are nowhere."
By the time Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war ended in 2002, efforts by the health ministry to manage unidentified bodies had ceased. Instead, Foday Kamara, a coroner at Connaught mortuary, had been collecting and burying bodies independently.
After his death that year, the task was taken up by his son, Sinneh Kamara, and Sinneh's friend, Joshua William Tucker, both of whom had recently left school.
Within a year they were receiving more requests for assistance than they could answer and began recruiting friends to help, using their own money to pay burial expenses. By 2004, SLDDO was a registered community-based organisation, with more than two dozen regular volunteers.
"We are men with passion - not for the dead, but for the living," says Kamara, now the mortuary's lead mortician and SLDDO's chief organiser. "I think everyone should be given what they need to have dignity up to the end. I'm in a position where I have a little money to help, but it's not enough. These burials need to be financed by the state because these are citizens of this country who have contributed to it, who have voted for its leaders."
Kamara is the first person to be called when someone discovers an unidentified body. If he has fuel, he gathers up a group to collect the corpse. On days when the tank is empty, they have to wait until money can be raised.
SLDDO says it has received barely any official support, despite the critical need to bury bodies swiftly during the Ebola outbreak.
"[It] was not easy for us," says Tucker. "People's relatives would die and they would not want to touch them and would sometimes just abandon them. So it was a heavy weight on our group. So many corpses [that] even educated, intelligent people abandoned for us to bury, just like that. Even if it wasn't Ebola, people were afraid of the dead."
The surge of unclaimed bodies quickly overwhelmed the team, which until then had been using Kamara's truck. But they kept going, burying unclaimed or unidentified bodies that had tested negative for the virus.
After they made a direct plea to the president's office, they were given their first ambulance last year.
Funding for the burial of unidentified corpses is the responsibility of the Freetown city council, according to the 2004 Local Government Act (pdf). However, Cyril Mattia, the council's public relations officer, denied any knowledge of SLDDO's existence and said bodies are always collected and buried without delay.
He called the notion of them being buried in mass graves "a bold-faced lie".
At the time of his interview, 25 bodies, including six children, lay in a four-foot pile in a small room at the back of the mortuary. After being shown photos of the room, Mattia claimed that responsibility for the corpses lay solely with the coroner's office.
Police in Freetown, a densely populated city with poor sanitation and many slum areas, are supposed to collect unidentified bodies, but often do not.
In March and April, people still traumatised by nearly two years of the Ebola virus took to the streets of the capital to express their anger at bodies being left to decompose.
Jeremiah Hallowell, an environmental officer for the council, admitted knowledge of previous collaborations between the council and the mortuary, but said the council had ceased providing financial support because of "unprofessional behaviour" from the mortuary. He did not elaborate.
Abdulai Baratay, a spokesman for President Ernest Bai Koroma, said it was the council's job to collect bodies.
"[Unidentified body management] was one of the functions given to the council in the act, giving them responsibility for the burial of paupers and the destitute," Baratay said. "Even when they get sick they're supposed to take them to the hospitals gratis until they get discharged, and handle burial if they don't."
Volunteers with the SLDDO say a lack of space in cemeteries forces them to use mass graves. Cremation is taboo in Sierra Leone and Peterson believes the best solution would be to establish a plot of land exclusively for the burial of unidentified people, with individual graves allowing for exhumation if family came forward.
But Baratay believes this would be discrimination.
"In my view, they should be buried among the other dead, rather than discriminating against them, particularly with the already negative label that these are the poor and destitute," he says.
But many SLDDO volunteers are growing frustrated.
"The government says they can't provide us [with] money for fuel, let alone labour, but if it was their own child would they be talking like this?" asks Dallas Kamara, who has been volunteering with the mortuary's burial team for five years. "Before you think about politics, think of the people in your country dying in the streets."