Sunday, 28 June 2015

Flash floods, landslides death toll rises to 23 in southeastern Bangladesh

At least 23 people have died in flash floods and landslides triggered by heavy rains that lashed southeastern Bangladesh, officials said on Sunday.

Tens of thousands of people were marooned on higher ground as flood waters submerged areas around Cox's Bazar and the hilly district of Bandarban.

Local police official Habibur Rahman confirmed the toll to reporters after four more bodies were recovered from a river on Sunday.

Bangladesh - one of the world's most densely populated countries - is highly vulnerable to natural disasters, including cyclones, droughts, floods and earthquakes.

India, Bangladesh and China are most at risk from river floods, with an increasing number of people threatened because of climate change and economic growth in low-lying regions, a study said in March.

Sunday 28 June 2015

continue reading

Saddam-era mass grave found in Basra province

Iraqi forensic teams in the southern province of Basra have found a mass grave containing 377 corpses apparently killed during the 1991 Shiite uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, said Iraqi human rights officials Sunday.

A statement released by Mehdi Tamimi, an Iraqi government human rights officer, said that the mass grave was found in the east of Basra province. According to Tamimi, the grave is the second biggest mass grave ever found in southern Iraq.

“The first stage of exhuming bodies has been initiated. Bodies are mainly believed to be women and children,” Tamimi said, adding that the forensic teams need larger budgets for further excavations.

According to Tamimi, there are more than 40 mass graves in Basra province. He emphasized the importance of preserving graves in order for them to be documented properly.

A Shiite uprising in 1991 started following the Gulf War upheavals against Saddam Hussein’s rule in the country. After the failure of the uprisings, hundreds of Iraqi citizens were killed by the regime.

Sunday 28 June 2015

continue reading

Karachi heat wave: 82 unidentified bodies buried in Edhi graveyard

Around 82 unidentified bodies, most of whom were victims of the heatstroke, were buried in the Edhi graveyard in the past two days, officials told The Express Tribune.

On Saturday, 25 bodies were buried while a day earlier, 57 bodies were buried, said the Edhi foundation’s spokesperson, Anwar Kazmi.

Mass funerals and burials for the deceased were held at the Edhi graveyard at Mawach Goth, which was established in 1985 to bury unidentified persons. The official said that due to the hot weather, unidentified bodies were being buried at the earliest. “The heat is damaging the bodies and we are burying them before they start to decompose. It is also difficult to store them once their condition deteriorates.”

In the graveyard, the bodies are distinguished from one another by a number allotted to the grave. Kazmi said that most people who are buried in this graveyard are poor.

He added that the relief in the weather had also improved conditions at the Edhi morgue, which was overcrowded earlier. By Saturday, 60 bodies were kept at the Edhi morgue, which has a capacity of 200 bodies.

Sunday 28 June 2015

continue reading

Pakistan heat wave: Death toll exceeds 1,200

The death toll from a weeklong heat wave in Karachi, Pakistan, has risen to 1,233, officials told the Associated Press Saturday. Some 65,000 people flooded the city’s hospitals to be treated for heat stroke, and about 1,900 patients were still receiving medical care as the country began to cool off.

“The government quickly responded by making arrangements for the treatment of heat stroke patients, and the situation has improved now," said Nazar Mohammad Bozdar, operations director at the Provincial Disaster Management Authority.

The heat wave started in earnest June 20, with temperatures climbing to 113 degrees Fahrenheit -- the hottest it’s been since 2000, CNN reported. The extreme weather came at the same time as Ramadan, a holy month most Muslims observe by fasting. Karachi’s power grid also collapsed, leaving thousands without air conditioning in a city already facing power cuts and water shortages.

The elderly and the poor were most affected, and they went to hospitals in droves for heatstroke and dehydration. The dead soon overflowed the city’s morgues. “They are piling bodies one on top of the other,” hospital official Seemin Jamali told Al Jazeera this week. To Dawn, he added, “We are continuously receiving people in a critical condition or dead.”

Pakistan’s laws forbid people from drinking and eating in public in daylight during Ramadan. As the heat wave has continued -- and worsened -- some Muslim religious leaders departed from tradition and encouraged followers to break the fast for health reasons.

The heat started to subside Saturday, with sea breezes and clouds taking temperatures to the mid-90s. But authorities in the Meteorological Department told Samaa Karachi could see 104-degree temperatures Sunday. “It has never been this bad,” meteorologist Farooq Dar told Time magazine this week.

Sunday 28 June 2015

continue reading

Naming the dead: Identifying Brooks County migrant bodies falls to dedicated volunteers

Kate Spradley was scrolling through the national database of missing people when she noticed a report contained a small detail, the color of a shirt, that made her pause.

A man Spradley calls Oscar, from El Salvador, was reported missing by a family member in Houston. He and a group of undocumented migrants circumvented the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias by trekking through sandy, rugged terrain. When Oscar was injured, another migrant tied a brown plaid shirt his leg to help him walk.

Spradley knew there was a body in the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, one of dozens of unidentified migrants exhumed from Brooks County’s Sacred Heart Cemetery, that had been buried with a brown plaid shirt.

It’s the type of clue Spradley, an associate professor of anthropology, and a community of volunteers spend hours painstakingly documenting in hopes of identifying people who died crossing rural Brooks County to destinations north.

While exhuming the bodies during the past two summers gives the deceased a chance to be returned to their families, it’s far from the end of the journey.

Some loved ones of those who died in Brooks County already have waited years to learn what happened to their family members. The volume of cases, 90 total, mean they still have months or years left to wait.

“This is the equivalent of having a mass d

isaster dropped off at our lab,” she said. “It needs to be done to give them a chance to be identified.” VOLUNTEER STATE

Spradley directs Operation Identification for the Reuniting Families project, an all-volunteer organization of forensic scientists working to return Brooks County migrant remains to their loved ones. She and Texas State University students were joined in June by volunteers from Indiana, New York and Ohio.

The reports they create — biological profiles — are needed before a DNA sample can be taken, Spradley said. The information is added to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

“We consider this a humanitarian crisis just due to the sheer number,” Krista Latham, associate professor of biology and anthropology at the University of Indianapolis and a Reuniting Families director.

In the classroom of the anthropology center, Latham and three University of Indianapolis graduate students took turns inspecting each bone — from the cranium to tiny bones from the toes — of each skeleton arranged on the carpet-covered table. She said each person involved gives them a chance to find an individualizing characteristic that will help family members recognize their loved one’s remains.

With Latham was 33-year-old Justin Maiers, of Lapeer, Michigan. He first saw helping with the migrant grave exhumation in Brooks County as a learning opportunity, Maiers said. But volunteers have since built personal connections with the local community impacted by and responding to unidentified migrant deaths.

“To go from handling one set of remains to handling dozens at a time was almost a system overload,” he said. “That’s just in Brooks County. Multiply that across the border, and it’s hard to wrap your brain around how huge of an issue it actually is.”

In a small room down the hall, Ohio State University doctoral student Victoria Dominguez and Texas State University graduate student Lauren Meckel photographed a skeleton as part of a migrant’s biological profile. While Meckel grew up in Spring, her father is from McAllen, an area heavily traveled by undocumented immigrants who travel north on U.S. Highway 281 through Brooks County.

“The idea that we can help identify some of these people whose families are looking for them brings it home for me,” the 27-year-old said. “I think anthropologists have a natural instinct to want to help people, and we’re lucky to be able to do what we do.”


Before the skeletons and personal effects can be examined, they must be cleaned.

Four volunteers in blue protective gowns and purple latex gloves worked steadily over plastic basins and a sink in an examining room at the center, permeated by the sour, salty odor of the bodies.

Two students from Binghamton University, State University of New York campus, washed clothes the migrants wore while traveling. The garments were heavy and dark, often worn in multiple layers. Not the kinds of things the students imagined people choosing to wear in tough terrain.

“That’s sad because they probably don’t have any other options where they’re coming from, and it’s hurting them,” Amy Szen, 23 of Buffalo, New York. “It’s landing them here.”

Szen and Susan Sincerbox, a 21-year-old from Hammondsport, New York, offered to volunteer in San Marcos after Spradley visited their university to talk about the project. They both are studying anthropology, and Sincerbox admits before arriving she wondered: “Am I going to be able to handle it?”

“It’s a great opportunity to do some work that’s actually going to make a difference,” she said.

Personal effects of migrants are hugely important for identification, Latham said. Families remember the last thing they saw their missing relative wearing.

On a stainless steel table rested a black bra, underwear and a brown shirt with a stripe of color that indicates it may have once been red. Szen washed and added parts of an asthma inhaler.

On a top shelf, they placed a black shirt, a pair of tennis shoes — size U.S. 3.5 — a Guatemalan coin and a morgue tag dated July 12, 2013.

Texas State University students Eastman Barnard and Dustin Posey used toothbrushes to scrub soft tissue from vertebra. The bones would be set out to dry before being analyzed.

It can be tough at times, Eastman said, but it needs to be done.

“There’s definitely a human aspect that gets to you from time to time,” the 22-year-old Austin native said. “You feel like you’re helping rather than memorizing more information.”

As the group continued its work, Meckle broke the relative silence with the high-pitched whir of her bone saw. She planned to cut a sample from a femur until it was thin enough to allow light to pass through, then look at it under a microscope to help determine the individual’s age.

“We’ll have better methods of identification as a result of that,” Spradley said of Meckle’s research.

The science of determining age by bones was developed using skeletons of people who didn’t perform a lot of manual labor, Spradley said. When applied to migrant remains found in Brooks County, “they over-age individuals.” Some migrant profiles entered into the national missing persons database have age ranges of 25 to 99 years old.


It took Spradley a year and a half to fully understand how an unidentified migrant body is returned to the deceased’s family. She’s also learned how to troubleshoot when bureaucratic roadblocks surface.

When her team received the body of a Honduran woman, they found an ID card in her shoe and matched it to her missing person report. A positive DNA match followed. It was the team’s first identification.

However, it was another year before the woman’s remains were sent home. For eight months of the yearlong delay, Spradley said she tried without success to reach the Falfurrias funeral home in charge of changing the name on the death certificate.

“It’s a long process, and there’s lots of roadblocks, so we have to be able to think on our feet,” she said.

The second match was Oscar, the man found with the brown shirt tied around his leg. The third was a man from El Salvador, identified after Spradley shared migrant DNA profiles with a forensics team in Argentina.

A DNA sample, typically from a small foot bone, is sent to the University of North Texas to be entered into a database of missing people. But that process has complications of its own. The university requires a U.S. law enforcement agent to collect a DNA sample from the migrant’s family for comparison, which Spradley said means family members must travel from Central and South America to the United States.

“If we could cross the Argentine database with UNT, we’d probably have hundreds of matches within a week,” she said.

While much of the work identifying migrants is done by forensic anthropologists, the people who have the power to reunite remains with families are Brooks County justices of the peace. The deaths occur in their jurisdictions, and they are the ones who accept or reject DNA matches.

The distance makes it tough for Spradley to reach them. Staff in the past have wrongly insisted the justices are not responsible for authorizing a body’s release to foreign consulates, who send the remains home. At those times, she is assisted by Eddie Canales of the Falfurrias-based South Texas Human Rights Center.

“Eddie had been helpful in going across the street (from his office) and getting a signature,” she said.

Brooks County has received state grants to recover remains and periodic assistance searching for them. But identifying the bodies falls to volunteers like Spradley, Latham and their students. They’re not paid for their time. Some don’t even get class credit.

“We’re trying to make the policy better, but it’s really hard,” Spradley said. “It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done professionally, but it’s also the most professionally rewarding, working with people who care.”

Sunday 28 June 2015

continue reading

New law addresses rising death toll of unidentified border crossers

More than 1,000 immigrants have died in the Rio Grande Valley since 2005, the majority of whose bodies remain unidentified, because local authorities lack the resources to investigate their deaths and to extract their DNA.

But a bill signed June 22 by Gov. Greg Abbott tasks the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) with establishing methods of extracting DNA and other forensic evidence from unidentified bodies found less than 120 miles from the Texas border.

This first-of-its-kind legislation was attached as a last minute amendment to Senate Bill 1287 during its final reading in the House. Authored by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, the bill addressed the licensing and regulation of forensic analysts and TFSC’s administration.

But state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, saw a different opportunity.

“It was spontaneous. I just noticed the subject of the bill and it got me out of my chair,” Canales said. “I ran to the front of the house and said, I have an amendment to this bill, hold on.”

The bill narrowly passed the House by a two-vote margin and Abbott signed it into law along with Canales’ amendment.

“I think it was one of my most exciting moments in the legislator,” Canales said. “I was a little over jubilant that it passed especially with the anti-immigrant sentiment that exists in the Texas legislature. I think it’s a great victory.”

Canales grew up in Jim Wells County about 60 miles north of the Rio Grande, not far from the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Brooks County. The rugged ranchland last year surpassed the Arizona desert as the deadliest for undocumented border crossers in the United States, with 115 recovered bodies.

Still, many of the surrounding counties north of the border lack the financial assistance needed to deal with this growing death toll, Canales said.

“I’ve been personally involved in trying to find a solution to not only the financial burden that exists for border counties but finding a manner to properly bury and respect human life regardless of where they come from,” Canales said.

Brooks County remains the epicenter of migrant deaths in South Texas, where nearly 30 bodies have been recovered so far this year and hundreds are buried at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias. Those numbers are down from 2013 and 2014, but the area remains a focus for authorities and immigrant advocates.

The South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias has been documenting the deaths of these migrants as part of their fight for the rights of the living, the dead and the disappeared, on this migrant trail. Eddie Canales leads the local chapter and serves as board president of the national network.

“One of our goals is to find out how many undocumented or unidentified border crosses have perished in 18 border counties in the state of Texas dating back to the 1980’s.” Eddie Canales said. “DNA testing is required by law for all unidentified remains but is not always being carried out which makes it more difficult.”

Last month, he celebrated the passing of Senate Bill 1485 by Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, which will make death records of unidentified persons available to the public after one year. The previous waiting period was 25 years making it very hard to unite and bring closure to the countless families with missing loved ones, Eddie Canales said.

Legislators also approved $2.3 million in new funding for the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center and the Missing Persons and Human Identification Program to help expedite the process of creating DNA profiles of migrant remains.

It takes anywhere from six months to a year to complete the DNA profile and to enter the information into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, prolonging grief for families seeking closure, Eddie Canales said.

“I think that it’s unquestionable what role immigrants play in our daily lives in our economy,” he said. “Not only do we need to respect what they do for our country but we need to respect human life in death.”

Sunday 28 June 2015

continue reading

No closure likely for kin of over 4,000 missing in U'khand deluge as Centre, state abandon DNA project

Families of as many as 4,119 people who went missing in Uttarakhand deluge of 2013 may never get a sense of closure. Two years after the tragedy, an ambitious plan to match the DNA of all the decomposed dead bodies that were cremated onsite with samples collected from families of those missing, has been shelved—largely because of finances and logistics involved.

Both the Uttarakhand government and the Centre have termed the very exercise as "undesirable" now. This after close to Rs 1 crore were spent on collecting DNA samples from nearly 600 victim and 200 families and USA's FBI was roped in for analysis.

The state argues that families of all the missing have already been given death certificates overruling a seven-year cap on such declaration and so there is no need for DNA testing anymore. But the state seems to be focusing merely on the legal and not the emotional part of the tragedy.

Alwar-resident Vijendra Singh's wife Leela "died" during the 2013 Uttarakhand floods. However, since only a death certificate issued by the Uttarakhand government said so, he kept looking for her. On January 27, 2015, Singh found Leela alive, begging in the streets of Uttarkashi. He had then told the media that death certificate was not enough to convince him of his wife's death.

This is where DNA fingerprinting was thought to be essential as it would identify decomposed dead bodies and give families a sense of closure. The project was launched with much fanfare, with soundbites to the media from all and sundry in government, in the first few days of the tragedy itself.

NDRF and state police personnel collected samples from dead bodies and Centre for DNA Finger Printing and Diagnostics (CDFD) Hyderabad was roped in to build DNA profiles. As many as 574 samples were collected from dead bodies. CDFD managed to build over 450 profiles out these. But these were of no use until they could be matched with the families of all those missing.

This worked out to an impending collection of over 8,000 samples (the process requires two samples per family). The state government, however, could provide only 192 blood samples from families of victims. Based on this, CDFD, which imported technology from US with help from FBI, managed to generate 18 matches, thus giving a sense of closure to 18 families. This was in 2013. Since then, nothing has moved.

In fact, CDFD has had to struggle to recover even Rs 1 crore that it spent on generating 450 DNA profiles as Centre and state sparred over who would fund the project. The total cost of matching samples runs into Rs 5.15 crore according to CDFD. Sources say Uttarakhand government asked Centre for help which the latter refused saying it was the state's responsibility and no central scheme had provisions to fund such a project.

In a series of letters (in TOI's possession) written through 2014 to Uttarakhand chief secretary, National Disaster Management Authority and Department of Biotechnology (which funds CDFD), CDFD director J Gowrishankar has repeatedly pleaded for the state and Centre to take steps to finalize the process to give a sense of closure to families.

All he achieved was reimbursement from the state government of a little less that Rs 1 crore CDFD had spent on generating 450 profiles without any commitment on further action.

In a letter--its tone bordering on exasperation — written to the Centre on July 1, 2014, Gowrishankar writes, "The MHA (Home Ministry) letter of 26.6.2014 appears to suggest that the DNA-based identification of Uttarakhand victims may not be necessary any more at this stage. In CDFD's opinion discontinuing this exercise now would be most unwise and unwelcome ...Such a decision may have the effect of reducing the government's stature in the eyes not only of its citizens but also of the international community with respect to both human rights and S&T capabilities."

When TOI spoke to Uttarakhand Disaster Management secretary R Meenakshi Sundaram about the issue, he said, "These issues don't have any relevance today. The government of Uttarakhand with the permission of government of India has decided to treat all the missing persons as dead and has already issued death certificates to families of the victims. We needed to do DNA testing to prove the identity of the person. But since everybody has been issued a death certificate ...DNA fingerprinting is not required actually."

Sundaram insisted that this was not new and even during the tsunami of 2004 the government had done the same. He said that by issuing death certificates government had ensured families were able to claim insurance, compensation or use it for other such official purposes.

When reminded that a sense of closure to families was as important, he said, "I am not aware why things are stalled as I am new here. If it's a question of just Rs 4-5 crore, we can work something out."

CDFD director Gowrishankar, however, feels more than finances it's the logistics that the Centre and the state must focus on as samples have to be collected from thousands of families spread across the country. "If the entire process is completed we will be able to give a sense of closure to at least 450 people. We think it is still worth doing," Gowrishankar told TOI.

Home ministry's disaster management division, when contacted by TOI, maintained that the responsibility of funding as well as managing the logistics rested with the Uttarakhand government. It also feigned ignorance about the June 26, 2014 letter where it expressed that DNA fingerprinting was undesirable.

Sunday 28 June 2015

continue reading