Friday, 1 May 2015

Volunteers burn Nepal’s unclaimed bodies as death toll rises

Morgues have no space for newly-arrived bodies in Kathmandu.
The crematory pyres outside the revered Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu spew grey-white smoke into the bright sun of Friday afternoon. Below, local women wade into the shallows of the revered Bagwati, splashing water on their arms to wash and cool down. At the water’s edge, families gather to bid goodbye to their loved ones. But six days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rattled this landlocked nation, officials are struggling to figure out where to store their unclaimed dead.

“We just do not have enough space in the refrigerators” says Bishnu Joshi, an officer with the municipal government in Kathmandu. Wearing a black athletic jacket and matching face mask, Joshi directs the large flatbed trucks lined with the dead, swarmed by flies. After entering the temple compound, the trucks must drive down a crude, mud-worn slope and into the Bhagwati River, through the shallows, and onto the grassy shoal at the river’s center. There, team of volunteers, wearing plain clothes, latex gloves, and medical masks, climb into the flatbed, lifting, dragging or pushing the bodies, wooden with rigor mortis, onto waiting stretchers for deposit atop hastily arranged funeral pyres.

Unlike the formal cremation ceremony, familiar to the thousands of visitors who pass through Pashupatinath each year, there was no pomp or circumstance to this afternoon’s procedure. The unclothed and uncovered bodies are simply tipped off the stretcher, two bodies to each pile, and set alight by the young volunteers as a small but vocal crowd looked on.

These bodies are the unclaimed dead housed at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu. As the death toll has passed 5,500, the university is running out of areas to store the bodies.

Volunteers help move the bodies. “I just wanted to help this week,” said Ramos Tamang, an 18-year-old college student who studies management. As droplets of sweat dripped from his forehead to the edge of his medical mask, the smell of decomposed matter wafted up from his latex gloves. Tamang describes the job as a “horror”, but it is one he’s committed to. His uncle and grandfather were killed last weekend when the family home, in the town of Nuwakot, collapsed. With his friend, Suhesh Kattel, 17, Ramos has joined one of many groups distributing aid and providing assistance in the aftermath of the disaster.

Kattel was similarly moved after visiting his friend’s father, who had his hand amputated due to injuries sustained during the earthquake. “My family wasn’t a victim of this earthquake,” Kattel told TIME, looking beyond the river to the opposite bank where families wait for their loved one’s turn on the cremation pyre. “I feel so sorry for all these families.”

Down on the shoal, young men like Kattel and Tamang are joined by 13 volunteers from the Khawalung Monastery. The monastery’s students, like Tashi,19, have supplied all volunteers with latex gloves as protection while moving the bodies. The students, dressed in sleeveless red robes and bright yellow vests, have matching yellow baseball caps.

“I am pretty scared of the dead bodies,” says Tashi, his arms, legs and face still wet after washing up after the day. They had disposed of 20 bodies in just over 30 minutes, but through the hottest time of the day. Asked why he had decided to volunteer, particularly given his apprehension, he said he was eager to find some way he could help.

Officials expect the death toll to climb to 6,000 as rescue and relief teams move through the countryside. According to an official in the forensic unit at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital contacted Friday evening, there are 33 unclaimed bodies in the morgue, 26 have yet to be identified, and the hospital is adding an average of 10 bodies to the morgue each day.

Friday 1 May 2015

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Mass graves unearthed at human-trafficker camp in Songkhla

More than 30 bodies were discovered Friday in shallow graves at a human-trafficking camp near the Malaysian border with the national police chief saying 20 more could be found.

Pol Gen Somyot Pumpunmuang said he had received reports from Songkhla provincial police and soldiers of 50 graves at the remote camp located in a mountainous jungle section of tambon Padang Besar in Songkhla's Sadao district.

The dead are suspected to be Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh who starved to death or died of disease while awaiting payment of ransoms to be smuggled into Malaysia by a trafficking gang comprising Thai, Myanmar and Malaysian nationals.

Some of the bodies were buried, while others were covered with clothing and blankets at a shelter in the mountains of southern Songkla province, Pol Col Weerasant Tharnpiem told The Associated Press.

"There are 32 graves, four bodies have now been exhumed and are on their way... to hospital to for an autopsy," Sathit Thamsuwan a rescue worker, who was at the scene soon after the site was found, told assembled media around 3.30pm.

Reuters reported that two more bodies were left to rot out in the open above ground.

By late afternoon, the exhumations had stopped pending the arrival of forensic teams.

"The bodies were all decayed," he said, adding a single man from Bangladesh survived and is being treated at a hospital in nearby Padang Besar, Malaysia. The hospital confirmed the extremely emaciated Bangladeshi man had survived and was in stable condition.

Pol Gen Somyot said the smugglers were believed to have abandoned the sick man when they moved Rohingya migrants across the border into Malaysia two days ago.

Officials were alerted to the graves by a local man who stumbled upon them while foraging for mushrooms. Mr Sathit, of the Maikom Sadan municipal rescue service, told the Phuketwan website that authorities had to trek 50 minutes up a hill to reach them.

The corpses have to be carried out, as vehicles cannot reach the grave sites.

Reports quoted investigators as saying that the camp held 200-300 Rohingya migrants. Pol Gen Somyot, however, described the site as a virtual "prison camp" where migrants were held in makeshift bamboo cells.

"There are 32 places that look like graves and whether there is one body or several bodies in those graves, we will we have to wait and see," he was quoted as saying by AFP.

Pol Gen Aek Angsananont, the deputy national police chief, said the camp, covering about one rai of land, had a bedroom and a canteen. It is only 300 metres from the northern Malaysian state of Perlis. The camp is very close to the border and authorities are trying to determine if it resides on Thai or Malaysian soil.

"This location helps traffickers transport the migrants at any time and it is difficult for officers to arrest them," he said.

Traffickers usually set up camps in random locations to avoid authorities, then leave behind any sick or dead when threatened with detection.

Authorities said they suspect there could be around 50 bodies buried at the camp.

The discovery, the first of its kind in Thailand, highlights the brutal nature of the trafficking trade in which hundreds are believed to have died in camps or at sea, Reuters reported.

Every year, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people arrive in Thailand, brought by smugglers. Many are taken by road to camps in the jungle, where traffickers demand a ransom to smuggle them south across the border to Malaysia.

Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest tier on the US State Department's influential Trafficking in Persons report, which annually ranks countries by their anti-trafficking effort.

Friday 1 May 2015

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Thousands still missing after Nepal quake

Thousands of people were still missing in Nepal on Friday as food and help began to trickle through to those stranded in remote areas after last week's earthquake which killed 6,250.

Up to 1,000 Europeans are still unaccounted for, mostly around popular trekking routes, the head of the European Union (EU) delegation in Nepal said.

"We don't know where they are, or they could be," Ambassador Rensje Teerink told reporters. Officials said it was hard to trace the missing because many backpackers do not register with their embassies.

"It does not mean that they are buried. They could have left the country without telling anyone before the earthquake struck," Teerink said Reuters.

Nepal's home ministry said it had not been informed that the number of EU citizens missing after Saturday's earthquake could be as high as 1,000.

"If that is the case then why are the embassies not informing us? Why have they not contacted the Nepal government?" home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal told Reuters.

The number of people unaccounted for from France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands is 371 according to checks Reuters made with their governments, while all Irish citizens, Croatians and Romanians have been traced. Other European nations are yet to provide an updated figure on how many of their citizens are unaccounted for.

Bodies are still being pulled from the debris of ruined buildings, while rescue workers have not been able to reach some remote areas.

The government put the number of injured at more than 14,350.

In the capital Kathmandu, many unclaimed bodies were being quickly cremated because of the need to avert disease and reduce the stench of corpses in areas where buildings had collapsed.

Many of the dead could be migrant workers from neighboring India, local officials said.

"Morgues are full beyond capacity and we have been given instructions to incinerate bodies immediately after they are pulled out," said Raman Lal, an Indian paramilitary force official working in coordination with Nepali forces.

Aid was slowly reaching remote towns and villages nestled in the Himalayan mountains and foothills of the impoverished nation. But government officials said efforts to step up the pace of delivery were frustrated by a shortage of supply trucks and drivers, many of whom had returned to their villages to help their families.

"Our granaries are full and we have ample food stock, but we are not able to transport supplies at a faster pace," said Shrimani Raj Khanal, a manager at the Nepal Food Corp.

Army helicopters have air-dropped instant noodles and biscuits to remote communities but people need rice and other ingredients to cook a proper meal, he said.

Many Nepalis have been sleeping in the open since the 7.8 magnitude quake, with survivors afraid to return to their homes because of powerful aftershocks. According to the United Nations, 600,000 houses have been destroyed or damaged.

Information Minister Minendra Rijal said the government would provide $1,000 in immediate assistance to the families of those killed, as well as $400 for cremation or burial.

The U.N. said 8 million of Nepal's 28 million people were affected, with at least 2 million needing tents, water, food and medicines over the next three months.


Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat said Nepal would need at least $2 billion to rebuild homes, hospitals, government offices and historic buildings and appealed for international backing.

"This is just an initial estimate and it will take time to assess the extent of damage and calculate the cost of rebuilding," Mahat told Reuters.

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala told Reuters earlier this week the death toll from the quake could reach 10,000.

That would surpass the 8,500 who died in a 1934 earthquake, the last disaster on this scale to hit the nation sandwiched between India and China.

Home ministry spokesman Dhakal said that though the 1934 quake was more powerful, fewer people lived in the Kathmandu valley then.

"The scale of reconstruction will be unprecedented," Dhakal said.

While international aid has poured in, some Nepalis have accused the government of being too slow to distribute it.

"There have been cases where villages have pelted stones on trucks carrying aid and food supplies. They must have been really hungry and angry to do so," said Purna Shanker, who works at the government's commodity trading office.

In Sundarkhula, a village close to the quake's epicenter west of Kathmandu, villagers said they were searching their destroyed homes for food.

Bharat Regmi, 28, said he jumped out of the first floor as the quake lifted his house from its foundations. When he went back a few days later, he and two of his friends found a bag of potatoes in the rubble.

"We are living on water and whatever we can dig out from the house," he said, standing under steady rain near the highway to Kathmandu. Later, he crept back under a thin orange sheet, shared with about a dozen other villagers.

Tensions have also flared between foreigners and Nepalis desperate to be evacuated.

In the Himalayas, climbing is set to reopen on Mount Everest next week after damage caused by avalanches is repaired, although many have abandoned their ascents.

An avalanche killed 18 climbers and sherpa mountain guides at the Everest base camp.

Friday 1 May 2015

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Kenya: Search on for at least nine nissing Narok floods victims

The search for nine missing bodies swept by flash floods in Narok on Thursday is still ongoing.

Kenya Red Cross, National Disaster Management, the National Youth Service and members of the public are involved in the search.

KRC Narok Coordinator Ali Juma said visibility and the water levels of the river have hampered rescue efforts, but assured they would continue with the search until all are accounted for.

Juma said the bodies could have been washed hundreds of kilometres downstream, in the incident that occurred on Thursday evening.

He appealed to the residents to be cautious and not underestimate the depth of flood water.

At least 15 bodies were recovered from floods in a town west of Nairobi and dozens more were still missing, local media reports said. “It’s difficult to say what the true extent of the damage is, given there is a lot of debris to sort through,” Michael Aiyabei of a Kenya Red Cross team told Capital FM News in Narok.

The death toll is expected to rise as torrential rain continued to pound Narok and rescuers pulled more bodies from the waters. “Forecasts suggest that weather conditions will continue to be very unsettled and will remain so throughout the week, with potentially intense rain falling on already saturated ground from tonight,” the Narok County government said in a statement Tuesday. “Further heavy rainfall is likely to increase river levels, leading to flowing of low-lying land and roads, as well as increasing the risk of groundwater flooding.”

Heavy rains in Kenya this month have submerged towns and villages this week, forcing around 1,500 people to leave their homes in Kisumu and Homa Bay counties. Swollen rivers have swept up houses, cars, crops and farm animals. The massive downpour -- coupled with poor drainage and irrigation -- has caused rising water levels in the area, local media said.

“I have lost at least 10 cows because of the floods. We do not have food to eat, we have been left with nothing,” David Owinyo, a father of eight from Kisumu, told the Daily Nation in Kenya on Monday.

Kisumu Gov. Jack Ranguma said he has asked the national government for help draining the overflown rivers, a project that the county government cannot fund alone. “Unfortunately, the budgets for that was left with the national government,” he told Capital FM News on Tuesday.

The Nairobi County government has appointed a task force to oversee the improvement of drainage within the capital after heavy downpour wrecked roadways and marooned pedestrians and vehicles Sunday, the Star newspaper in Nairobi reported.

Dozens of people die each year during Kenya's rainy season, which usually lasts from March until May. In 2013, tens of thousands of people were affected by flash floods and landslides in Kenya. In addition to claiming lives and damaging homes, the floods contaminated water sources and put already vulnerable communities at higher risk of water-borne illnesses such as diarrheal disease and cholera.

Friday 1 May 2015

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MH17 disaster: Search for remains and wreckage ends

Investigators say they have finished recovering human remains and wreckage from the site of the MH17 plane crash in eastern Ukraine.

A final flight carrying seven coffins will arrive in the Netherlands on Saturday.

Personal belongings such as watches, rings, and passports have also been found.

The Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was shot down in July 2014, with the loss of all 298 people on board. Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the Dutch-led mission, said the team had done "everything humanly possible" in the recovery process on Wednesday.

He said many more body parts had been discovered, and the team was hopeful the finds would allow the final two victims to be identified.

DNA tests will be carried out on the remains when they have been returned to the Netherlands. Investigators have not ruled out finding more remains or wreckage in the future.

'Burn sites'

The plane had been flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on 17 July when it went down over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine.

The Dutch Safety Board's final report is expected to be ready around October.

A preliminary Dutch report said the plane broke up after being penetrated by "high-velocity objects".

Forensics scientists have been working at two so-called "burn sites" - where there were large explosions when the plane came down - as well as another area of ground, reports the BBC's Tom Burridge in Donetsk.

The wreckage of the plane was spread over an area of approximately 70 sq km (27 sq miles).

The mission says its work was delayed by the continuing conflict and because the ground was frozen during the winter. However, because of gains made by the rebels in recent months, the fighting in eastern Ukraine has moved further away from the crash site, our correspondent adds.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders is due to fly to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Friday.

A team of 20 Dutch and four Malaysian military police have been searching for more human remains, and any personal belongings of the 298 people who died.

Personal belongings of the passengers, including watches, rings, driving licences and passports, have been found during the latest search.

Other possessions, that were collected from the crash site by local residents last year, have also been given to the Dutch mission, so they can be passed on to the relatives of the victims.

Friday 1 May 2015

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