Collecting the dead in South Sudan

2014-02-16 14:44

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Bor - Beneath skies filled with vultures circling the ghost town of Bor in South Sudan's Jonglei state, diggers are clearing more space for the bodies slowly filling the ground.

Some have lain where they fell since December, when fighting broke out in the capital Juba, about 200km to the south.

A stand-off between the country's leader Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar quickly spread to Bor, where old ethnic, political and historical tensions were revived and countless people were killed.

Now, limbs are melting under the sweltering sun, exposing bones that dry and twist like firewood. But one man is determined to count, despite the pervasive stench and mammoth task of clearing up what local and UN officials estimate are a few thousand bodies.

"I was sick for three days, but I couldn't stop. I couldn't leave the bodies," said Michael Mayen, a human rights lawyer turned self-appointed body collector whose tears and constant coughing have hardened into a resolve to bury as many people as he can.

"We have to honour our people. We have to bury them."

Kitted only with one white cotton glove and rubber boots, Mayen has been dragging the dead off the streets of Bor, away from the jaws of feasting dogs and circles of sharp beaks.

"We started collecting the bodies on 27 January and now we collected to this moment 2 007 bodies," he said, standing at a site where 134 people have just been buried.

More white body bags - some with alarmingly small contours - glint in the sun and line the streets. When shifted, they cause a smell so violent that resident Joseph Mabyei snatches a fistful of herbs from the ground, spits and takes an alternate route to the nearby water point.

"I smelt the bodies and I cried," said Mabyei, who lost 30 friends and relatives in the fighting. "It makes me feel very bitter, having this rot in your nose."

Jonglei's acting governor, Aquilla Lam, said that "maybe 60 percent of Bor has been cleared" and hope of salvaging more remains is crumbling.

"We don't have equipment. We don't have cars", he said.

For now, he is focused on taking out Machar's rebel forces that are still fighting in three of South Sudan's 10 states, even if a ceasefire is supposed to be in place and peace talks are ongoing in neighbouring Ethiopia.

Read more on:    sudan  |  east africa
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