Civil war to civil engineering
King Tom War CemeteryREAD STORY
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Freetown, Sierra Leone
Site at risk of collapsing into sea
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“I spent most of Sunday morning lying on the floor of my room with the mattress propped against the window in case of flying glass. Throughout the morning there were repeated visits to the hotel from the rebel soldiers who shot at and robbed guests.”
This was the account of David Richardson, then a Commission horticulture manager, on a working visit to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1997. Part way through his trip to oversee replanting and renovations at our cemeteries, civil war broke out.
He and other foreign visitors were holed up in their hotel for days until UN planes were able to evacuate them.
Due to the sheer global scale of our work, world events occasionally impact us. Thankfully staff have never had as close a call as this since. The priority is always to ensure people’s safety. Stones and planting can be replaced. The long-term nature of our work allows us to bide our time when things become unsafe.
By the noughties a gradual return to Sierra Leone was possible.
Despite the forced absence, the main site in Freetown, King Tom Cemetery, was still in relatively good condition. Until a new threat emerged from the weather.
Record rainfall in 2016 saw a deluge of water hit the cemetery. The sea defences were destroyed and the site was at risk of collapsing into the ocean.
Against a backdrop of flooding and an outbreak of Ebola we had to balance complex needs.
One option, only considered in extreme circumstances, would have been to exhume the war dead away from the coast to higher ground.
But it would have been near impossible to get approval to dig up human remains during an epidemic, regardless of when they had died. Almost a quarter of the war dead buried in King Tom were killed by Spanish flu during the First World War. No one was going to question people’s nerves in the face of this new contagious disease – we had our own reminder of their costs.
“The mayor also told us the cemetery had become part of Freetown’s heritage. So we respected local wishes and stuck to an engineering solution,” said area director Rich Hills.
It took time, but an answer to the problem was found, as well as an excellent local partner to completely rebuild a brand new sea wall.
“It was one of the Commission’s most complicated engineering projects and we couldn’t have done it without local support. Making such a huge achievement in a country that we’d been evacuated from only a few decades earlier made it all the more poignant.”