Mozambique in race to save the living, bury the dead

New threat faces cyclone-gutted Beira as bodies pile up

24 March 2019 - 00:00 By JEFF WICKS


A week after Cyclone Idai destroyed villages and razed vast expanses of the Mozambican port city of Beira, the bodies of flood victims are piling up and rotting.
The city, which bore the brunt of last week's tropical storm, has been reduced to a wasteland and - without electricity, fuel or communications - disaster management authorities have nowhere to store the dead.
Stephen Fonseca, the International Committee of the Red Cross's regional forensics manager, said identifying the dead was fraught with challenges.
"The humidity and the temperature as well as the general climate and the conditions have been compounded by a lack of power. This speeds up decomposition and will create challenges identifying people. I am really worried about that," he said.
"We want to look in Beira but certainly outside the city because the rural areas were very hard hit. We need to explore if people are cut off from delivering bodies to mortuaries," he said.
The death toll has climbed to 417, with almost 90,000 people rescued, the National Institute of Disaster Management said.
Hundreds of thousands are believed to have been displaced.
A spokesperson for SA's department of international relations, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, said officials were searching for two South Africans who were reported missing by their families.
"We have not immediately determined that they are missing. It is possible that because the communication infrastructure has been crippled, their families may not be able to reach them," he said.
"We have asked the high commissioner in Mozambique to engage with the search & rescue force."
Hospitals, schools and homes were battered by driving rain and devastating gales and were all but levelled by the rising tide - leaving the city and the villages that surround it cut off. With rain still falling at a steady pace, and the surging flow from river systems in Malawi and Zimbabwe pushing the high-water mark upwards in some places by 8m, rescue operations continue.
"I am concerned that with areas flooded, bodies will move from one area to another with no link to the point of death. The dispersion of bodies is a real concern and we need people to identify people before they are buried," said Fonseca.
A source in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), who spoke to the Sunday Times on condition of anonymity, said that water stretched as far as the eye could see, with entire villages submerged.
"Every time a flight comes back it does so with bodies. You see bodies floating in the water and caught in the debris," he said.
The SANDF has deployed critically needed personnel and equipment. Included in the latest payload are hundreds of body bags and mobile "field mortuaries".
The Red Cross delegation deployed to Beira on Thursday was made up of forensic pathologists who would "recover and conduct the dignified and professional management of the dead".
"We have deployed forensic specialists who will work with the Mozambican authorities to establish a system for managing human remains and ensuring their dignified burial. Without proper management of human remains, bodies go unidentified and families are less likely to have closure," the organisation said.
Red Cross staff have started compiling a list of missing persons.
The regional director of the UN's children's rights arm Unicef, Leila Pakkala, said that as the global response morphs from rescue to humanitarian aid, the true toll of the cyclone will reveal itself.
"The damage is likely to include schools and health facilities, as well as water and sanitation infrastructure, all of which will bring a heightened risk of waterborne diseases," she said in a statement.
Humanitarian agencies are racing to rescue those still trapped, feed those who have been brought to safety and protect them from malaria and cholera.
"We are running out of time, it is at a critical point here," Unicef chief Henrietta Fore told AFP after she flew into Beira.
Hygiene and safe drinking water are absolute priorities, she said. "There's stagnant water, it's not draining, decomposing bodies, lack of good hygiene and sanitation. We are worried about cholera, about malaria, because of the stagnant water."

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