TODAY'S PAPER
74° Good Afternoon
74° Good Afternoon
NewsWorld

By the thousands, Haiti returns dead to the earth

TITANYEN, Haiti - (AP) — They stick out at all angles from the tall mounds of chalky dirt, the limbs of men, women and children frozen together in poses of death.

Tens of thousands more killed in Haiti's catastrophic quake lie beneath the earth in mass graves cut into this wide green hillside north of Port-au-Prince, buried anonymously and without ceremony above the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.

And each day, the dead keep coming.

"I received 10,000 bodies yesterday alone," said Foultone Fequiert, 38, who was operating an earth-moving machine at one of the graves, his face covered with a T-shirt that seemed little defense against the overwhelming stench.

"I have seen so many children, so many children. I cannot sleep at night, and, if I do, it is a constant nightmare."

Despite pleas from the world that every effort be made to identify Haiti's dead, and that they be buried in shallow graves from which loved ones might eventually retrieve them, workers say there is simply no time for that — and little point.

"We just dump them in, and fill it up," said Luckner Clerzier, 39, who was helping guide trucks to another grave site farther up the road.

"If we took pictures of them you wouldn't be able to recognize them anyway," he said, gesturing toward a pile of bloated bodies baking under the hot midday sun, many tangled together in a terrible contorted embrace. The hands and feet of other victims stuck out of the ground around them.

Clerzier said workers had made every effort to cover the bodies fully, but that it had proved impossible.

"There are just too many," he said, his shadow falling on the remains of a naked infant lying on the ground a few yards from the larger mounds.

An Associated Press reporter counted 15 burial mounds at Clerzier's site, each rising 15 feet into the air and covering a wide trench cut into the ground some 25 feet deep. At the larger mass grave, where Fequiert was working, three earth-moving machines worked to cut long trenches into the earth, readying them for more cadavers.

Asked how the site could hold so many dead, Fequiert gestured toward the ground.

"They are everywhere under our feet," he said.

Titanyen, a sparsely populated wasteland, in the past has been used to dump unclaimed bodies.

It was impossible to say how many earthquake victims lay buried in the mass graves, but the Haitian government says it has already disposed of some 80,000 killed in the Jan. 12 quake, which is estimated to have killed 200,000 people. Both men said there were other sites dotted around the green rolling hills.

The mass graves are causing considerable controversy.

Two experts from the International Committee of the Red Cross have encouraged Haitian authorities to fill out a standard form on bodies so that families may later identify them and know where they are buried. The procedure includes photographing clothing, jewelry and special marks on the body, and noting where the body was found and where it was buried, said ICRC spokesman Marcal Izard.

Religious leaders — including both Roman Catholic and Voodoo priests — have also been highly critical, saying the concept of mass graves was anathema to Haitian beliefs. In Voodoo, considerable importance is placed on the regular maintenance of the tomb so that the living might honor and commune with ancestors.

"I think it is degrading. It is indecent, and it is inhuman," Max Beauvoir, the head of Haiti's main Voodoo priests' organization, told the AP. He said he had appealed to President Rene Preval to stop the mass burials, but had so far not had a response.

Precious few of the quake victims are receiving proper burials. Other uncollected bodies have been burned in the streets. Officials say they are sensitive to both religious concerns and the desire of relatives to recover the bodies of loved ones, but they argue they have had no choice but to move quickly to dispose of the tens of thousands of others.

"Of course, tradition is very important," Port-au-Prince Mayor Jean-Yves Jason Muscavin told the AP on Wednesday. "But it's a choice that had to be made. By the time we'd organized to deal with the problem, the smell had already started."

As if to underscore his point, a banner draped over the capital's main cemetery since shortly after the quake warned: "We are full. We are not taking any more bodies."

The mayor claimed the mass graves were provisional and that the government would consider using DNA later to identify victims. But such a process seemed impossible given the size of the trenches at Titanyen, where workers said large white dump trucks swiftly unloaded the dead, before earth-moving machines covered them up. They were aware of no effort to keep track of who was buried where.

Clerzier, a fisherman from the nearby village who lost a brother, a cousin and two young children in the quake, said he had become numb to his grim work. But he choked up describing what the earth had taken from him personally.

"My boy was 9, and he looked just like me," Clerzier said, gazing back toward the village where his house once stood. "I would pick him up from school and take him to swim in the sea right over there. I never would have imagined that these fields would be filled with bodies today."

Clerzier said no priest had yet been out to bless the unnamed thousands at Titanyen, an oversight he described as an outrage against their souls. But he said he expected God would overlook the slight.

"They are in heaven now, anyway," he said, walking amid the dirt-covered piles. "God is the one who made this happen, and so God will take them in."

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

News Photos and Videos