Philippines struggles to identify bodies

2013-11-15 12:33
Corpses of victims of Typhoon Haiyan are seen lined on the ground before a mass burial in the outskirts of Tacloban, on the eastern island of Leyte. (Philippe Lopez, AFP)

Corpses of victims of Typhoon Haiyan are seen lined on the ground before a mass burial in the outskirts of Tacloban, on the eastern island of Leyte. (Philippe Lopez, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Tacloban - A week after one of the strongest typhoons ever tore through the Philippines, bodies still lie where they fell or were washed up, the defining motif of a tragedy that has killed thousands.

The stench of bloated and discoloured human flesh decomposing under the tropical sun hangs everywhere in the central city of Tacloban, where wretched survivors and rescue workers cover their mouths to keep the cloying smell from their throats.

Hundreds have been collected, put into body bags and trucked off to wrecked municipal buildings to await burial in mass graves, a process that city authorities began on Thursday.

Officials and aid volunteers say those bodies that have been recovered are just the beginning, a small fraction of those that could be seen when the storm surge subsided. Many more, they say, lie under the mountains of debris.

"Leaving them [the bodies] just decaying on the roadside, uncollected, is next to unforgivable," local Catholic priest Amadeo Alvero said.

Cholera

Officials initially said picking up the bodies had to take second place to the effort to help those still living, many in utter destitution, their homes swept away and with precious little food or clean drinking water.

But they also conceded they had simply been overwhelmed by the number of dead, and had temporarily run out of body bags.

Echoing a fear expressed by many, Alvero said the dead could be the source of contagious disease.

"The government needs to act fast because this could also become a health issue," he said.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona insisted the bodies did not pose a serious risk. Experts point out that a corpse can only carry a disease such as cholera if the disease was present before the person died.

"We have to assure our countrymen that... there will not be an epidemic," he said. "The one thing we want is to identify them so we can give some peace to their relatives."

Identification is not always easy, for instance when whole families have died, leaving no-one around to ask.

Teams have been dispatched to Tacloban from the Justice Department's investigating arm and the national police's crime laboratory.

‘Fear and depression’

They know they will not identify everybody they find straight away, but hope to collect enough evidence to allow that to be done later.

"On the scene, our doctors begin the documentation," said Chief Superintendent Liza Sabong, head of the national police crime laboratory and part of the contingent sent to Tacloban.

"We tag them as male or female, they photograph them, list the belongings on the cadaver itself. We do fingerprinting. We measure the body and then they are placed in cadaver bags."

This "processing" will allow any surviving relatives at a later date to identify the body, possibly through its clothes or appearance, she told AFP.

But the sheer scale of the task is overwhelming.

Only 13 of the 182 bodies collected by Sabong's group have been picked up by their relatives, she said. The rest have been left behind.

Tacloban on Thursday began mass burials of some of those bodies that had been bagged and laid out by the shattered city hall.

The plan, said mayor Alfred Romualdez, was that all those whose name and family were known would be placed into one huge pit. The unidentified rest would go into a separate mass grave.

Romualdez, who has been an outspoken critic of the rescue effort, said he believes three-quarters of all bodies collected had still not been claimed by family. In these circumstances, mass burials were the only option.

"Let's get the bodies out of the streets," he said. "They are creating an atmosphere of fear and depression."

The head of the Justice Department's forensics division, Wilfredo Tierra, said the collective burial was only intended as a stop-gap measure.

"They will be buried temporarily in a shallow, mass grave and when everything has settled down and the peace and order situation is not an issue anymore, then we will proceed with the proper disaster victim identification," he told AFP.

News24's Lauren Hess is travelling to the Philippines with Gift of the Givers. Follow her for updates on the rescue mission.

Lauren’s twitter handle is: @LaurenH_ZA






Read more on:    philippines  |  typhoon haiyan

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
5 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

 
/News

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.