In most countries in the world the capital cities are densely populated to such an extent that residents scramble to get plots of land to construct houses, offices, factories, among other.
The desire to get a parcel of land at all cost in the capital cities have led to widespread encroachment, with cemeteries not spared as the dead and the living hassle for space to lay their heads, so to speak,
Freetown is not an exception to this phenomenon. As such, most lands belonging to various cemeteries in Freetown have been encroached on by some ill-motivated Sierra Leoneans, who in their quest to get a piece of land have constructed makeshift structures. Others though have taken it a little too far by transforming sacred places into garages and dumpsites.
Cemeteries, memorial parks, mausoleums, gardens of remembrance, among others, are sacred places where the dead are buried and they should be protected at all cost.
Some of the most popular cemeteries in Freetown include Kissy Road, Circular Road, Murray Town, Ascension Town, Kingtom, Race Course and Kissy; these cemeteries are not protected from encroachers as many remain unfenced and accessible.
Although the Freetown City Council is in charge of the cemeteries, despite numerous appeals by the media for them to be fenced, no concrete action has been taken.
It will interest everyone to know that most of the occupants of lands belonging to cemeteries in Freetown are ‘legal’ occupants. Some of these people have documents issued to them by the Ministry of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment. So who is fooling who and who is referring to those that have occupied cemetery lands as illegal occupants?
Frankly, the government has taken too long to act and protect lands belonging to the cemeteries. For God’ sake cemeteries are the resting place for all human beings no matter their status.
Encroachers are very clever and smart. They will start their illegal activity by pretending they are taking care of these sacred places. They would start by putting up make-shift structures where they carve ornaments which are used to decorate graves. Relatives of the dead would ask them make ornaments in order to decorate graves. The decoration of graves by relatives of the dead is regarded as a means of showing love and respect for their lost ones.
If these encroachers are not questioned or asked to demolish their makeshift structures, they will begin by constructing permanent dwelling houses and thereby claiming pieces of land that belong to the cemeteries.
An aggrieved resident of Freetown, Tony Murray, says the encroachment of cemeteries in Freetown have been going on for decades with the government showing little or no concern.
“Most of those that owned the garages and makeshift structures at those cemeteries are probably supporters of the ruling government and that is why they have been there unhindered. Freetown is no longer having pieces and parcels of land to be allocated for cemeteries, and that is why we should protect the existing ones,” he opines.
Sulaiman Zainu Parker, Environment and Social Officer at the Freetown City Council (FCC), in an interview with this writer, confirmed that most lands belonging to cemeteries in Freetown have been encroached on.
“In fact, most of the cemeteries posed environmental hazards because people have transformed them into dumpsites. This is like an eyesore to people who are in the habit of visiting the graveyard of their dead ones,” he says and adds that most of the people that have encroached on cemetery lands do so to construct makeshift and permanent structures, while others transform them into garages to park and maintenance their vehicles.
He blames the Ministry of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment for being in the habit of issuing building permits and other documents that legalise the existence of those people residing in the cemeteries.
He cites an example of a building at the Ascension Town Cemetery situated on top of three mass graves that contain over 200 corpses.
He disclosed that encroachers always take advantage of changes in leadership at the council. He adds that whenever a new Mayor takes them to court, the matter will be in court until his term of office expires, following which they go to the Ministry of lands to secure fresh documents.
“People also take advantage of the damaged fences at the cemeteries to access the land and put up structures, but plans are underway to fence and beautify the cemeteries so as to scare away encroachers,” he said.
He says the council needs strong political will to enable them evict the encroachers.
A grave digger at the Circular Road Cemetery, Foday Boima, says the Freetown City Council had visited the burial site and warned people to stop dumping wastes at the cemetery, but they failed to heed the warning.
He adds that the people are being motivated to embark on dumping their wastes, parking their vehicles for repairs and building makeshift structures in cemeteries because some sections are not fenced.
However, despite various efforts by the media and some residents of Freetown to attract the attention of the government to evict encroachers from cemeteries, those efforts have so far proved futile. This has motivated the illegal occupants of cemetery land to continue their illegal activities unabated.
Most of these encroachers are currently rejoicing over the manner in which the government has been dragging feet to evict them.
In order to solve this problem, the government, through the Ministry of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment should visit and verify the lands before issuing a building permit or land documents.
Also, the government should demolish all makeshift structures constructed on lands belonging to cemeteries. In doing so, the government should not be bias. All those who are supporters of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) should not be sacred cows, including those who do not support the current government.