Trudging through thick mud in sweltering heat, Stephen Fonseca uses his nose to follow the putrid stench of decomposing flesh in a mielie field in Magaro, a few kilometres outside Dombe in Mozambique.
Pedro Fernando Chicocoto, a farmer from the area, had earlier in the day flagged down Fonseca and complained to him about the smells emanating from the remains in the fields. Chicocoto’s mielie fields had been destroyed, but it was clear to the farmer that among the debris in his field, there was also death.
The flooding of the Lucite River submerged entire villages in Magaro and the surrounding areas. Fonseca, the head forensic analyst in Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), came to the area following reports of mass casualties and people still missing.
More than two weeks after the flooding, debris remained hanging from overhead power lines, crops were destroyed and huts washed from one village to another. Pools of water remained in the mielie fields and mud lines on the trees indicated the levels to which the floodwaters had risen.
Cyclone Idai wreaked havoc in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, killing more than 1 000 people – more than 600 of them from Mozambique. But the real number may never be known as many people are still missing.
Fonseca, accompanied by Dr Casimiro Minerva Macucha, a forensic pathologist from the Mozambican government, was left with the arduous task of recovering bodies and providing dignified burials for the unidentified bodies that washed up in villages, some of them kilometres down the river.
In this field, Fonseca and Macucha would eventually find the remains and rotting clothes of a young child, and the remains of an adult woman in a pile of debris close by. Dogs and other scavengers had already started picking at the remains of the child, with the footprints of different dogs visible around the site.
Finding the bodies weeks after the cyclone hit, and the flash floods that followed, meant that little could be done to identify them. In many instances, villagers had been burying unidentified bodies in the same spot they were found.
“In mass fatality response planning, you get two types of cases. You get a closed population case and an open population case … Something like this, we call an open population case, where we don’t actually know everybody who is dead and we don’t know who is missing,” Fonseca explained the previous evening, after dropping off spades, body bags, grave markers and other items in Grudja, a village where a number of people were still missing.
“Only as people start reporting do you get a better sense of the numbers of people who are missing. But you will never get everybody reported missing. Some families won’t, they will just accept the death. They observed somebody going under the water and accepted it, and they don’t always report it. So you don’t always get 100% reported missing on both sides,” he said.
Despite tracking down the remains of two people in that field, Fonseca said in disasters such as the flooding caused by Cyclone Idai, not all the dead will always be found.
“You are not always going to find all the dead either. Some might disappear due to predation, scavenging, people will bury bodies without reporting them. So it is very much a challenge because you don’t know exactly how many people you are dealing with,” he said.
“And then you look at this spatially, it’s such a broad area to concentrate efforts on,” Fonseca said. He said part of the work he’s doing with Macucha was to help him centralise all the information they were collecting, and standardise the collection of the information.
Fonseca said the Mozambican government would require a “much more coordinated response from within the communities … One of the challenges, because of temporal and spatial issues, is some of the bodies have been buried before they have been identified in some cases. So we get a number of unidentified bodies and it’s really up to the authorities to decide to what extent they can make those identifications.
“If they are going to start trying to identify all the unidentified bodies that are in those graves, it really means exhuming all of them and conducting a series of forensic tests to get all the comparative information you can out of the bodies,” he said.
‘Mud and leaves’
Earlier in the day, Farai Mario Magaro, a traditional leader in Magaro, led Fonseca and Macucha to the shallow grave of an unidentified woman who was buried among banana trees and other crops.
The body was covered with dirt and banana leaves in the spot it was found when the flooding subsided. Magaro explained why the body was buried that way: “Because of the mud, it is difficult to dig [a grave]. So we just cover the body with mud and leaves.”
“The body was just buried on the spot by the first person who found it. It’s not the right way to do it, but the guy tried to do something,” Fonseca said. He had to explain to Magaro and some other men from the village why the body had to be exhumed and buried properly.
After consulting the other men, Magaro agreed and pointed to a spot further away from the village’s crops and water resources. Fonseca had to explain that leaving the body buried as it was made it vulnerable to exposure at a later stage with further rains or scavenging animals.
While taking a break from the sweltering heat in the shade of a tree near the body, Fonseca said: “Lots of bodies are being found in the fields. Some might be caught underwater in debris, and others might never be found. We do know that many people reported bodies floating down the river, but we just don’t know how many.”
After exhuming the body, Fonseca and Macucha examined it for any visible identifying marks, scars or features. Despite being badly decomposed and the face unrecognisable, Macucha identified a few injuries on the body, including a broken jaw, shattered tibia and fibula on the left leg and a laceration already swarming with flies and maggots under the right arm.
Fonseca and Macucha continued their forensic examination, which included taking pictures of the body, before it was put into a white plastic body bag. The new grave a few metres away had just been dug by some of the men from the village. They helped Fonseca and Macucha carry the body bag before placing it carefully into the new grave.
Fonseca thanked the men for slowly and carefully lowering the body into the grave, emphasising the importance of treating the unidentified remains with dignity and respect. Once lowered into the grave, the men took turns to cover the body.
The grave marker read simply: “This is a grave. Do not touch it. Unidentified woman. 01/04/2019.”
“This is the way it has to be done. There is no substitute. This obviously isn’t ideal, but this is the best they can do [under the circumstances],” Fonseca said.
“I don’t know that any of us fully appreciate what it’s like losing your daughter or your son. Or seeing your four children being washed out of a tree and what it would do to those parents and siblings for the rest of their lives and what it means to get the body back,” he said.
“For the last 20 years, that’s what I’ve been working on; getting bodies back to the families. While they don’t get their loved one back alive, just the emotion that comes from that, it is insane. There is such a strong connection there.
“To get your brother, sister, mother, father, child, to get the remains back, it is immense. And it allows them concrete evidence that their loved one passed away, they can now deal with that chapter, accept it and change their lives accordingly.”
But it might take years for the family of this woman to receive that closure.
About a 10-minute walk from the fresh grave lies an even grimmer site. The decomposing body of a child stuck 20m up in a tree along the Lucite River. Fonseca said that for a body to be stuck so high up in the tree was an indication of the severity of the flooding.
Recovering the body up until that point would have been a dangerous undertaking. To get to the tree, one had to carefully descend down the steep slopes of the river bank and navigate the crocodile-infested water and surrounds of the river.
A day later, with the help of an experienced farmhand from the area, a chainsaw and some brave men from the village, Fonseca and his small team managed to free the body from the tree. “We cut our way through the dense debris and eventually made it to the bottom of the tree,” Fonseca said.
“The local chief instructed a young man to climb the tree, which he did with remarkable ease. A rope was tied to the child’s leg and the debris cut away, allowing for the body to be respectfully lowered to the ground,” Fonseca said.