Friday, 28 June 2013

Mass graves of babies scandalize Greece

The unresolved issue of mass graves of babies has made Kaliopi Spanou, Ombudsman in Athens, file a complaint against the administration of Athens cemetery. In 2008, the Ombudsman had prepared a special report on the status and management of the cemetery, but nothing had been done until recently to improve the situation as reported by Greek media. Five years ago, Spanou paid particular attention to the mass burial of babies by cemetery authorities.

She was aware of the problem after the parents of a deceased baby informed that the Athens municipal cemetery authorities had refused to perform the exhumation of the remains of their child. The inspection has made it clear that the cemetery authorities bury all remains of babies in a common grave and cannot carry out the exhumation of a specific child because they do not know to which child the remains belong.

In 2009, the Ministry of Health issued a decree stipulating that deceased babies should be treated like deceased adults and that there should be a separate grave/urn for each of them, indicating the child’s name and surname. "The bodies of babies should be buried separately with all the identifying marks provided by the law for adults, after the issuance of a personalized registration," stipulates the ministerial decree.

The Ombudsman's inspection shows that not only has the right of individual burial been violated but also that the legal procedures as regards the issuance of a permit for a burial place where the remains of the small bodies can be laid have not been met. The investigation of the particular case of which Spanou had been informed found the remains of the buried baby but their exhumation was impossible because the remains of other buried babies would have been removed as well.

The supervising authority has made strict recommendations as regards the procedures which henceforth are to be applied. The municipal services have accepted these observations and the official information indicates that this practice will be over. It is not yet clear whether the municipal cemetery in Athens will suffer some sort of punishment for the creation of unregulated mass graves of babies.

Friday 28 June 2013

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'Go slow on last rites, bodies don't spread disease'

A group of senior scientists from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has warned the Uttarakhand government, under pressure to finish mass cremations at Kedarnath, against the consequences of burning piled up bodies without a thought to "psychological closure".

TISS's Dr Ravikant Singh, said it's "important" to first try and identify the bodies. "There are the clothes victims have on them. There would be cellphones they've used. Kin need to know if their loved ones have really died," Singh said. "Otherwise, they'll keep hoping that someday the door will open and people they have assumed to be missing — in the absence of concrete evidence of their death — will walk in. There needs to be psychological closure. Else, it might lead to lifelong trauma and hallucinations. What's happening at Kedarnath is wrong."

The doctors said governments often justify mass cremations after natural disasters in the name of diseases bodies spread. "But there are myths that need to be broken," Singh said. "Bodies don't cause epidemics. And have negligible health risks for the public as long as they don't touch or handle dead bodies. Smell is not a health risk in well-ventilated area."

In something that the ITBP hinted at when its DG Ajay Chadda told the Uttarakhand government that "burial of bodies is not in our charter of duties", the scientists said the urgent task is care for survivors. The doctors, who were here first on June 20 and readying a second batch of scientists to reach Uttarakhand, said rapid mass burial of victims is not justified on public health grounds.

Though this might be controversial, the scientists, who said no one was listening to them, have come armed with a presentation for the state that says burial is preferable to cremation. The burial site should be 1.5m deep, at least 200m from drinking water sources, with bodies side by side and not piled up, and with clearly marked spaces for each. "Seeing the body and being able to say goodbye allows an emotional closure," one doctor said.

The recommendations are in keeping with a Pan American Health Organization report of 2004 that has its director Mirta Roses Periago noting: "Regrettably, we continue to be witness to the use of common graves and mass cremations owing to the myths and beliefs that corpses pose a high risk for epidemics."

Friday 28 June 2013

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Death toll rises to 52 after Ndassima mine collapse

The number of people killed when a gold mine in the Central African Republic collapsed at the weekend rose to 52, local officials said.

The previous toll for the disaster, which occurred on Sunday when a landslide destroyed a pit in Ndassima in the centre of the country, stood at 37.

"From the figure of 37 dead on the day of the tragedy, we now have a count of 52 bodies recovered," Didier Ouangai, mayor of the nearby city of Bambari, told AFP.

"The entire population of the Ouaka region is mourning. People can't stop crying. Just imagine, seven members of a same family perished. It is a real tragedy," he said.

Another local official said it was feared the toll could rise even further since 64 miners were known to have been working in the pit, at a depth of around 18m, when the landslide struck.

"We are using moto taxis to transfer the bodies to their families in Bambari," said Jules Gatien Wenceslas Zengagba, a young gold miner taking part in the search effort.

"As soon as this rain-induced collapse happened, it was clear there would be no survivors. In some cases, we retrieved severed heads, this is how we tallied up the casualties," said Mahamat Saleh Ndomakossi, a local official.

The government has declared three days of national mourning from Tuesday.

The gold and diamond mining sectors are key to the economy of the highly unstable, landlocked nation. The diamond business provides directly and indirectly for about a quarter of the population of some 4.5 million.

The infrastructure is rudimentary however, and the Central African Republic has remained one of the world's poorest and least developed countries despite its mineral wealth.

Ndassima lies in territory controlled by former rebels of the Seleka alliance, who ousted president Francois Bozize in March.

Friday 28 June 2013

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No DNA samples, chopper crash victims hard to identify

The bodies of 17 out of 20 IAF, ITBP and NDRF personnel who were killed in Tuesday's helicopter crash are badly mutilated and burnt, and they are still lying at the accident site near Kedarnath, officials said on Wednesday. They said the bodies were beyond recognition and they were in a fix on how to hand them over to the families for cremation as they do not have any previously preserved DNA samples to match with.

Rescue teams are waiting for the weather to improve on Wednesday, when they will fly the bodies to Guptakashi one by one on a smaller helicopter.

"Within 15-20 minutes they would have reached the base at Gauchar. After spending almost a week at Kedarnath under extreme conditions they were finally returning when the helicopter crashed. I did not speak to them but they must have been really happy and excited to return," said Ajay Chaddha, DG ITBP.

Of the 20 men who were killed six belonged to ITBP. The other nine NDRF men who died were also from ITBP and were on deputation.

The next challenge for the officials was to identify the dead. "All of them were in uniform and their bodies are badly burnt. We will preserve the DNA samples but the real challenge would be to hand over the body to the concerned family. As we do not have previous DNA samples stored with us we can match it only with that of the family members, which is a time consuming process," said a senior official. "We will look for some other identification like a ring, chain or any other thing." At least 11 of those killed were aged between 22 and 32.

As of now, 26 ITBP and 60 NDRF personnel were still posted in the Kedarnath, Gaurikund areas. Chaddha said they would be asked to return only after the weather improves.

Friday 28 June 2013

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Authorities cremate hundreds of flood victims in northern Indian state of Uttarakhand

Authorities in India on Thursday conducted mass cremations of hundreds of people who were killed by devastating floods and landslides that struck Uttarakhand nearly two weeks ago.

Army helicopters flew Hindu priests to the worst-hit town of Kedarnath in Uttarakhand to conduct funeral prayers before the cremations of nearly 300 bodies that were found buried in silt near the town’s main temple.

State government spokesman Amit Chandola said that authorities had airlifted tons of logs for the cremations, but that the funerals were delayed by intermittent rain. Eighteen bodies were cremated Wednesday before the rain, he said.

With the skies clearing up Thursday, the cremations resumed.

Before being cremated, each body was photographed and DNA samples were collected, Chandola said.

Kedarnath, one of four temple towns in Uttarakhand, is part of a popular Hindu pilgrimage route. Most devout Hindus make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives, and hundreds of thousands of people visit the temples during the summer before the onset of the monsoon season. This year, however, they were caught in early rains in mid-June that led to torrential floods and landslides in the Himalayan region.

India steps up grim search for bodies in flood zone

Rescue workers stepped up the search for bodies Thursday in India’s flood-ravaged north and mass cremations took place as fears grew over outbreaks of disease, officials and reports said.

More than 100,000 mainly pilgrims and tourists have been evacuated from the disaster zone while some 4,000 remain in relief camps after the flash floods and landslides that hit the state of Uttarakhand on June 15.

Rivers swollen by monsoon rains have swept away houses, buildings and entire villages in the Himalayan state, which was packed with tourists and pilgrims travelling to Hindu shrines.

Around 1,000 people have died, the state government has told AFP, although officials have warned the death toll could rise as more victims are found.

Persistent bad weather is hampering evacuations from the relief camps, officials said, and their focus is increasingly on recovering bodies to prevent the spread of disease.

“The remaining people will be evacuated as and when the weather clears,” a senior officer overseeing rescue operations told AFP.

“The bigger worry is finding the scores of dead bodies that may be still buried under debris,” said the officer, who did not want to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Health officials have warned locals against drinking river water on concerns of contamination from rotting bodies.

Six bodies were found floating in the Ganges in Allahabad on Wednesday, some 650 kilometres (404 miles) downstream from Kedarnath, according to reports, highlighting the difficulty of locating all those who perished.

Rescue workers are clearing away large amounts of debris and scouring remote areas for victims. More than 1,000 bridges have been damaged along with roads, cutting off villages and towns.

A team of police, doctors and firemen has been deployed to the worst-hit Hindu temple area of Kedarnath Valley to recover bodies there, the officer said from the state capital Dehradun.

All survivors in that area have already been picked up. “They are carrying saws, plate-cutters and also saline water which is needed to preserve body parts,” the officer said.

The team includes mountaineers to retrieve bodies found in the jungle, valleys and gorges, and help carry them out on foot, as well as photographers who will send pictures to the police to speed up the identification process.

DNA samples from the bodies are being taken before cremation and are being preserved by the authorities, officials said.

The search for bodies and the cremations came as villagers accused authorities of ignoring the needs of local residents and instead focusing rescue and relief efforts on visiting pilgrims and tourists. “There were 67 houses in our Chandrapuri village out of which 63 were washed away by the Mandikini river,” Birendra Singh, a former army officer, told AFP at a relief camp in Dehradun.

Friday 28 June 2013

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