From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
Fast forward to Anambra State; the fate that befell Eugene Nwaemenari, a brick layer residing in Odume axis near Awada Onitsha, who had a double jeopardy recently. After several years of struggling to have another baby, his wife Nneka finally conceived, nine years after the birth of the couple’s first child.
The pregnancy was a sweet reward for Nwaemenari and his wife who had lived through the psychological agony of three miscarriages. Naturally, they awaited the birth of the baby with great excitement. Unfortunately, complications set in during delivery. After a prolonged labour, the woman had a stillbirth, a baby boy.
While the wife was battling for life in the hospital not knowing that her baby didn’t survive, the husband who could barely afford to feed his family from his meager earnings didn’t even consider the idea of keeping the dead baby in the mortuary.
He called few friends who rushed to the hospital to offer him help. The option of taking the baby to the village in faraway Bende Local Government Area, Abia State, was ruled out, partly because of the expenses involved in travelling far and the fact that the wife was still on admission in the hospital. Together, they wrapped the dead baby and took off to the Onitsha public cemetery for burial.
But a shocker awaited them at the cemetery located along Oraifite Street, Awada, Onitsha. They found that the place had been walled off with blocks while weeds had overgrown the little remaining allotted space. Confused and not knowing what to do, the bereaved father came up with a weird idea – to conceal the baby’s corpse in a polythene bag and look for a yet-to-be-developed plot of land to bury the dead baby there without the knowledge of the owner.
And that was exactly what he did. Nwaemenari pretended as if he suffered no loss, waited until nightfall before he left his house with the dead baby, located an empty plot with a dwarf fence, scaled the fence and entered there with a hoe hidden in a sack. With apprehension, expecting any eventuality or being caught by the owner of the undeveloped plot, he dug a space deep enough to cover the baby’s body, buried it and quickly left the place.
Onitsha facing cemetery crisis
The true life incident narrated above is one out of many, which residents of Onitsha and environs suffer at the present whenever they lose a loved one to the cold hands of death and there is a compelling need to bury the dead in the town.
The commercial city is facing a crisis since the shutting down of the remaining one plot carved out of what used to be Onitsha Cemetery popularly known as Burial Ground. Residents can no longer find where to bury the dead while the frustrated ones dump the corpses at the frontage of the shut cemetery. Residents close to the cemetery, in order to avoid the stench oozing out of the decaying corpses resort to burning, thereby causing further environmental pollution with its attendant health implications.
Located at the now ever busy Oraifite Street, Awada by MCC junction, close to Upper Iweka, Onitsha Cemetery used to be a large area of land running into hectares. With increasing urbanization and the craze for the construction of three-storey buildings (now five floors are in vogue!), which rich Onitsha businessmen are known for and also see as a status symbol, land speculators began to encroach on the area. Findings by Sunday Sun revealed that there was initial discreet encroachment on the area by land speculators, but during the period between 1999 and 2003, government agents allegedly sold off the large chunk of the burial ground to private developers leaving barely a plot of land to serve as the cemetery.
Some of the first people who bought portions of the land, exhumed bones and debris of corpses buried in the place and erected buildings which many tenants are living in today. Some others resold their portions to secondary buyers, who later built houses on top of graves. Churches too, have been built on portions of the cemetery land. Who knows, ghosts may even be attending vigil in those churches these days!
Not quite long after, the little space left of the cemetery got completely filled up that in some instances, people no longer dig graves when they bring dead bodies to avoid excavating bones and skeletons. They just dump bodies on the ground and cover them with sand leading to serious stench and putrefying odour with attendant health hazards for the people living nearby.
A resident of the area, Samson Onyeka recounted to Sunday Sun the situation before the cemetery was sealed off. He said: “It was a daily nightmare. Those of us living nearby felt the heat while passersby also shared in our predicament. People brought corpses to bury there but there is no more space. Often times, they would dump the dead bodies in cartons if they were little kids. But the dead adults were just covered with sand. The police were the greatest users of the place. They would bring dead bodies riddled with gunshot wounds and force anybody they saw around to help them carry the bodies into the graveyard. Of course they never come with shovels, they just dump the body or in some cases stack them in heaps if they are many, cover them with leaves and drive away. Within a matter of days, the area will begin to smell horribly as the bodies decompose. All of us living nearby inhale the odour while passersby hold their breath or stuff their nose and hurriedly walk past the place.”
A church’s daily nightmare
Located very close to the graveyard is the Parish Rectory and church of St Michael’s Catholic Church, Awada. The immediate past parish priest of the church, Rev. Fr. Thadeus Eya, in an interview with Sunday Sun recalled the hellish experience they passed through.
His words: “It was traumatic for me and the parishioners. Then, we may be celebrating mass and the stench from the graveyard would fill the air making the congregation totally uncomfortable. Sometimes, I would retire to my room, look out through the window only to see heaps of fresh corpses. Sometimes you see those who brought the corpses as they dug shallow graves. I confronted the situation frontally and asked residents nearby to notify me anytime people, mostly the police, brought corpses there.
“We wrote several letters to the police, the local government, Department of State Security (DSS) and the state government with pictorial evidence. I also made passionate appeals to former Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi, any time he came for a function at the Basilica Archdiocese or in any meeting with priests. Our argument then was for government to relocate the cemetery since the mistake had been made by past administrations, who allowed people to acquire the cemetery land to build houses. The battle lasted for almost seven years I worked at St. Michaels and I thank God it worked because government later responded and sealed up that place thereby putting a stop to the eyesore.
Local cremation of corpses begins
While residents and technical workers living and working within the cemetery area heaved sighs of relief after the cemetery was shut, another problem of dumping corpses at night in front of the shut cemetery surfaced.
Some people who patronized the place for burying corpses devised another method where they would come in the night and dump dead bodies at the frontage thereby constituting another problem for the residents nearby.
Neighbours living and working in the area in this situation couldn’t find any other alternative than to burn the corpses with heap of tires, to allow them still live in the area.
A vehicle mechanic, Ezekiel, explained the situation thus: “We’ve had cases where a corpse with a deep gash on the forehead covered sparingly with a nylon material was dumped overnight and we saw the corpse as we woke up in the morning. Several instances like that have been recorded even recently and all we did was to gather materials and burn the corpse to ashes in the evening hours so that we could stay here the next day.”
Asked about the health implications of such improvised incineration of corpses, he retorted: “What do you expect us to do in this situation? Do we have to abandon our work place and run away from the scene so that hunger will kill us? This is rainy season, if we allow the corpse to remain there, the stench will sack all of us so we have to devise this method and also guard the place to ensure that no one dumps corpse there again but they sometimes beat us to the game.”
Implications of the cemetery’s closure
While government agents closed the Onitsha cemetery without providing an alternative in any other part of the town, the consequences are already creating a ripple effect. During the petrol tanker fire disaster that burnt about 69 people to death at Upper Iweka in May 2015, Anambra State Government while conducting mass burial for about 30 of the unidentified bodies had to borrow the Anglican Communion Cemetery located at Obosi to perform the ceremony. Since then, it has been a frustrating experience for any other person who loses a beloved one and felt like burying the corpse in the town.
A traditionalist and public opinion analyst, Chike Emelumba told Sunday Sun reporter in Onitsha that burning of corpses has spiritual implications too.
He said: “It is a mark of honour to bury the dead. Only those who committed abomination in Igbo culture are thrown into the fabled evil forest so that vultures would devour them. To now dump corpses in a closed cemetery and people burn them is simply desecrating and dishonouring the dead. The spirits of such dead people can never rest in peace and their ghost may be hovering around that area. Those who possess ‘spiritual eyes’ can see what I’m saying. I think that government needs to act fast by looking for a land to serve as an alternative public cemetery so that both the living and the dead can be spared this agony and ill-treatment.”
We are on top of the situation –Government
When the reporter contacted the Anambra State Commissioner for Environment, Beautification and Ecology, Dr Ifeanyi Ejikeme, he said that the Obiano administration is on top of the situation, adding that the government doesn’t joke with any environmental issues. He, however, referred the reporter to the Onitsha North Local Government Council, whose duty it is to take care of cemeteries as specified in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Transition Council Chairman, Patrick Agha Mbah, evaded comments on the issue when contacted on phone and kept on shifting the arrangement for a one-on-one discussion on the issue.