Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The 261 unclaimed bodies of the Karachi heatwave; why do they remain unclaimed or identified?

It’s a fear that stalks furtively, the fear of dying alone, unloved and unmourned. Blended in this are worries about physical helplessness, about the indignities of the processes of death. But above all, dying alone seems an indictment of how we have lived, as if the universe itself scrawled ‘could do better’ across a report card untainted by anything of note. As if we never mattered.

That is why, two weeks after the killer heatwave in Karachi left some 1,233 dead, many are still wondering about the 261 ‘unclaimed bodies’. Who were they, these people only Edhi wept over? Were they once distinguishable in a crush of humanity, these dead who are now a series of numbers in a communal grave? Did they ever matter, even to themselves?

The search for answers takes me to the Edhi morgue.

Set in the sprawling Edhi complex in Karachi’s stolidly middle-income Federal B Area, the morgue is the only one in the city that allows even the indigent the right to dignity in death. The beige marble of the cavernous, 18×24 main hall offers respite from the late afternoon sun and white energy savers dispel the gloam. Three fans suspended from the false ceiling lazily swish around swarms of flies as well as eddies of cool and hot air. And every once in a while, when you’re least expecting it, rises the stench of putrefying bodies.

It’s hard to describe this smell: a strange composition of the stewing juices of decomposing flesh, unwashed human bodies and rotting flowers, laced with traces of formaldehyde. Faint but perceptible are base notes of blood, piss, sweat and shit — reminders that this too was once human, alive. It’s less a scent than a physical being, which clings to and then wafts off the clothes, the bodies of the Edhi staff, pirouettes on the beams of sunlight slashing the marbled floor and seemingly vapourises in the afternoon heat.

Ghulam Hussain has been working here for the last 10 years and we settle down for a chat on the marbled ledge that runs around the room. “It was so hot, you couldn’t sit here; the heat seared through the marble,” he says of the weekend of June 21. “We buried some 300 unidentified people that week, of which 39 were subsequently claimed by relatives.”

We’re interrupted by three women in abayas, stifling sobs; they are here to identify a body. Hussain skims through their paperwork, there’s a rapid-fire exchange in Sindhi. I hear “gunshot victim” and try to quell my curiosity by focusing on two pink spots on the floor (guava juice? bloodstains?) and then the light goes out. A volunteer appears with an emergency light and the three disappear, with their trailing abayas, into the cold storage area to the left.

So who were the 261 they buried? Vagrants? Heroin addicts? Professional beggars? The detritus of society?

Hussain recoils visibly. “No,” he says emphatically. “Some were heroin addicts — between 30 to 35 in total — but the rest were healthy, well-built, well-nourished people.” He seems to grapple for a word, a description that will convince me. “Kaam karne wale log the [they were working class people],” he concludes miserably, as he scans my face to see if I’ve understood.

Before I can cross-question him, the room erupts in wails. The women are back and for the next few moments, Hussain is transfixed. Does it still affect him? “I am a human being,” he says simply. “Doctors, policemen can’t afford to get emotional; it would affect their work. But we…” It’s an ethos Abdul Sattar Edhi personifies. A printed ‘appeal’ in Urdu hangs on the wall at the Edhi office near Mereweather Tower.

Employees and volunteers are reminded that Edhi himself begs for alms on the streets and any person who steps into Edhi offices to donate deserves to be treated with courtesy and respect. “If you can’t do so, please quit your job. This is God’s work; it will continue without you as well.” Under the shadow of this veiled threat, Edhi staff engage in the business side of their work: a man shuffles in, carrying four bright blue polyethene bags. “Kaffan hain [are these shrouds]?” asks Anwar Kazmi, who also functions as Edhi’s spokesperson. The man nods: “Cotton hai [it’s cotton cloth]” These men are intimately familiar with the modalities of death — Kazmi gives me a detailed account of how much graves cost in which part of the city — but, as Hussain shows, they have yet to lose their compassion.

So if less than 15 per cent of the unidentified dead were vagrants, beggars and addicts, why weren’t the other bodies claimed? One of the rumours swilling around the city puts forward economic reasons: meteoric demand fuelled a price hike and the cost of a grave rose from between Rs5,000 and Rs10,000 to as much as Rs50,000 in some cases. Those who couldn’t afford these rates were forced to step back and let Edhi bury their dead. Kazmi finds the idea plausible: “We received more than 10 times the amount of dead people we usually do so it is possible that the high cost of graves pushed people to leave bodies unclaimed.”

But Hussain disagrees vehemently. “It’s very difficult to identify decomposing bodies, even for relatives,” he says, as he leads me to the front desk of the morgue, which doubles as an office. As per procedure, an unidentified body is kept in the Edhi morgue for three days before burial. Apart from the standard autopsy-type details (gunshot/stab wound etc), the Edhi staff also makes a note of the precinct the body was discovered in and takes a photograph of the deceased before burial. These details, along with an assigned death number, are inscribed by hand in fat registers and help claimants identify their loved ones.

The first calls on June 21 started coming in around 11am, when people began fainting across the city. By the time the day ended, there were 280 bodies and Karachi’s administration had collapsed under their combined weight.

Hussain hands me a two-inch thick stack of 4×8 colour photographs, held together with a flimsy rubber band. All are headshots of people in advanced stages of decomposition. As the bodies of the heatwave victims putrefied, they released gases that contorted facial features. Hussain quietly watches me sort through the unending stream of bulbous eyes, protruding, mottled tongues and bloated, blackish-grey faces with thin trickles of blackish-maroon blood. There are faces where the flesh seems to be hanging on the face by a gravity-defying miracle, the skin stretched taut over eye sockets that could have been hewn from stone. There are others where the facial muscles lost the battle against the dead person’s canines and the premolars, the moment frozen in a grotesque grimace. And there are yet others whose features are indistinguishable behind thick plastic sheets.

“Some of the bodies were so decomposed, we had to wrap them in plastic just so we could bury them,” he explains softly. “It’s very hard to identify even your loved ones when they’re in this state.”

According to Kazmi, the first calls on June 21 started coming in around 11am, when people began fainting across the city. By the time the day ended, there were 280 bodies and Karachi’s administration had collapsed under their combined weight. The hospitals were overwhelmed, the city ran out of ambulances, the morgues were filled to capacity and yet the dead kept coming.

The city’s Samaritans are rightly credited for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and rescuing a city in crisis: doctors at government hospitals pulled 72-hour stints, aid workers pushed themselves to exhaustion and beyond, citizens flooded hospitals with bottled water, ice blocks, juice and biscuits. But the suffocating blanket of heat that enveloped Karachi worked against everyone, undermined everyone’s effort. There were people who collapsed on the streets, Hussain reminds me, and by the time the bodies were picked up by an ambulance and taken to a hospital, pronounced dead and then ferried to a morgue, a couple of hours had passed. There were long queues everywhere: for ambulances, at hospitals, at the morgues, even for burial. “From the time a body arrived at our doorstep, there was a three to five-hour wait before we could put it in storage,” he says.

There was a two-hour wait for even those that brought their relatives to be bathed prior to the funeral. And all this while, the bodies baked in ambulances in the heat. “Do you wonder that people couldn’t recognise their relatives after such advanced decomposition? Some bodies were so bad, we couldn’t even wait the stipulated three-day period before burial,” he grimaces.

We return to the main hall and shortly after, the gunshot victim is wheeled out for bathing, the sheet slipping to show the exit point of the bullet on his forehead.

Now Hussain takes me inside the cold storage area, which comprises two 20×30 rooms. Three-tiered shelves run across both lengths of the first room, with neatly stacked bodies on them, while an empty rack stands in the centre. It’s sparsely populated today: just seven or eight bodies. The built capacity for the unit is 200 — Hussain says they get between 30 and 40 bodies per day on average.

But in the last week of June, the morgue had between 300 and 350 corpses here. “We took out this central stretcher to make space,” he tells me, as he gestures around the room, which is used by families who need to delay burials. “We just put sheets on the floor and began to pack the bodies in — there were three rows there under the AC, another row extending from this corner — there were just so many bodies.”

We walk further down, into the second room, where the corpses professionally trussed up by hospital staff give way to those casually draped with shrouds with ‘Edhi’ stamped across them in blood red. Even in death, the indigent are a separate social category unto themselves. Hussain points towards the exposed feet of one. “The addicts have this weather-beaten colour; just look at his long and dirty toenails, the matted hair and beard. The others are unidentified too but they don’t look like this.”

We return to the main hall and shortly after, the gunshot victim is wheeled out for bathing, the sheet slipping to show the exit point of the bullet on his forehead. A male relative comes up and asks sotto voce about the wound. “Don’t worry; we’ll clean him up well for the funeral,” Hussain murmurs, before he turns to talk to two Pathan boys carrying a child wrapped in a prayer mat. Yet another wants to know what the charges for bathing a five-day-old girl will be. “Don’t worry about that; just get her bathed. You don’t even need to get a receipt,” he says.

I’m suddenly desperate to leave so I make my excuses. Unlike everyone I’ve ever interviewed, Hussain doesn’t bother asking me when this article will be printed. As I walk towards my car, I’m hoping the afternoon sun will sterilise my being and remove the smell — that smell. After 10 minutes in the airconditioned car, I can’t smell it anymore and I relax.

Except the smell doesn’t really dissipate. It just lodges itself at the back of my throat, to rise again when I am safe at home and about to sip my first cup of tea.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

continue reading

M/B Kim Nirvana sinking: PCG ends search, rescue ops

The Philippine Coast Guard has ended its search and rescue (SAR) operations for any survivors from the ill-fated sea vessel M/B Kim Nirvana that capsized off Ormoc City last week, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said Tuesday.

“The PCG ended their SAR but is still on active monitoring,” the NDRRMC said in a report.

Thirty-five recovered bodies were brought to Pilar, Camotes Island in Cebu via BRP Batangas.

The death toll stood at 61 with one unidentified body. A total of 142 were rescued.

The passenger vessel bound for Camotes Island capsized Thursday last week minutes after it left port.

Authorities are yet to determine why the vessel sank. The number of the passengers in the manifest and the total number of rescued and dead did not match.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

continue reading

Sierra Leone: "Why should it be a crime to volunteer on the Safe and Dignified Burial Team?"

Before the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Sierra Leone, it was a taboo in most parts of the country for young people, especially those of child bearing age, to witness the washing and preparation of corpses for burial. In line with tradition, women prepared female corpses for burial and men would prepare male bodies. However, as the death toll from Ebola escalated and the majority of burial teams were composed of only men, such a provision could not be made for women.

Seeking to preserve the dignity of their deceased loved ones, some families objected to the all-male teams attending to a female corpse. Or, burial teams would arrive in a community to find that the deceased had already been washed and dressed. Such interaction with a potentially contagious body will have resulted in new chains of transmission. To counter this, the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society specifically recruited women to join its Safe and Dignified Burial teams. There are now more than 30 female volunteers embedded into these teams across the country.

Despite their heroic contributions, these courageous women, along with their male counterparts, have frequently been ostracized and stigmatized by their communities, and even loved ones.

Mariatu Kargbo shares her experiences as a member of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society's Safe and Dignified Burial team, and talks about what motivates her to overcome these social challenges.

Mariatu Kargbo, 38, is married with five children. She became the second female volunteer for the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society's Safe and Dignified Burial (SDB) team serving the Western Rural Area.

"It is a taboo in my tribe for women within child bearing age to witness or wash dead bodies. This often lingers in my mind because I am still within the age of being a child bearer and I want to have another child," says Mariatu.

"It is not easy. Ebola is new in our country, it is contiguous and risky. But if you are self-disciplined and go strictly according to the standard operational procedures, you will never contract it." Mariatu can speak confidently based on her experience of collecting bodies. Sadly this confidence is not shared by her relatives. "All my friends and most of my family members are afraid to come closer to me, they refuse to eat the food I prepare, and some traders in my community don't sell goods to me because I am part of the SDB team." Mariatu poses the question, "Why should it be a crime to be a SDB volunteer?"

Wednesday 8 July 2015

continue reading

Remains Of 36 WWII Marines Found On Island

The bodies of 36 US Marines have been found on a remote Pacific island more than 70 years after they died fighting the Japanese in the Second World War.

Mark Noah, director of US charity History Flight, said the remains of the men were discovered after a four-month excavation on Betio Island, Kiribati.

The men were killed during fighting in the Battle of Tarawa in 1943.

Mr Noah told Radio New Zealand: "(They) had an expectation that if they were to die in the line of duty defending their country they would be brought home... that was a promise made 70 years ago that we felt should be kept."

Among the bodies is thought to be Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry - America's highest military honour.

The citation for the medal said he led a series of assaults when Marines stormed the island, and was fatally injured while attacking a bomb-proof installation that was hindering the Marine's advance.

A statement on the charity's website said Lt Bonnyman's daughters had decided to have his remains interred at a family plot in Knoxville, Tennessee.

More than 1,000 Americans died at Tarawa, and the entire Japanese garrison of 4,800 was wiped out.

Mr Noah said the remains will be repatriated to the US this month and identified using dental records and DNA.

He added that bodies of several hundred more US soldiers still remain on the island.

"There's a lot of work to be done on the island," he said.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

continue reading

Migrant boat sinks near Greek islands, more than 15 missing

The Greek and Turkish coast guards rescued 21 people and recovered at least one body after a migrant boat sank Tuesday near two small Greek islands close to the Turkish coast. At least 15 people were believed to be missing.

The Greek coast guard said 13 of those rescued near the islands of Agathonisi and Farmakoniki were picked up by Turkish authorities, and the other eight by the Greeks. The survivors told authorities a total of between 37 and 40 people had been on board, and the coast guard said it was still searching for about 15-18 people.

Survivors had earlier told authorities they believed between 33 and 37 people had been on board.

It was not immediately clear why the boat sank, or what the migrants' nationalities were.

Tens of thousands of migrants have made their way from the Turkish coast to Greek islands so far this year, hoping to make their way to more prosperous European Union countries. The numbers have overwhelmed Greek authorities, who have struggled to process and care for the large wave of migrants, most of whom are refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

Earlier, the coast guard had said it had picked up 518 migrants from Monday morning to Tuesday morning in 14 incidents near the islands of Samothraki, Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Kos. Scores more arrive themselves on the shores of Greek islands in inflatable dinghies.

The Turkish Coast Guard said Monday they had caught or rescued a total of 649 migrants in the Aegean in the past week.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

continue reading