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Relatives struggle to identify dead in China mudslides
Thu, Aug 12, 2010
AFP

ZHOUQU, China - San Fenlong wearily removes his mask as he leaves a makeshift outdoor morgue. He has just identified the body of his nephew, a victim of China's horrific mudslides, from the belt he was wearing.

The 15-year-old's clothes were the only items San and his family were able to recognise, four days after the boy's death. Searing heat and the blunt trauma of the avalanche of sludge and rocks left his face unrecognisable.

"We can't bring him home as his body is decomposing, so we're going to bury him here in the mountains," San said, as another man's bruised body, arms outstretched to the sky, lay in the open awaiting identification.

After the disaster in Zhouqu, a remote northwestern town nestled in the mountains of Gansu province, the grim task of retrieving and identifying the dead is becoming more and more difficult.

"People are now having to identify them by the clothes they were wearing or their birthmarks," said San, as yet more rain came tumbling down.

Rescuers are still pulling bodies out of the mudslide - which has so far killed more than 1,100 people - carrying them on stretchers to the morgue, located at the foot of a mountain on the side of the road leading into Zhouqu.

"We dread hearing the phone ring because each call means more deaths," Wu Guorong, the leader of a five-member team tasked with transporting corpses to two designated funeral homes, told the Global Times newspaper.

But with more than 600 residents still buried deep in the muck, and intermittent rain complicating the search, the chances of finding all the bodies are slim to none.

As authorities grow increasingly worried about the outbreak of disease, workers clad in white suits and masks comb the town, spraying disinfectant in every street corner and on the mudslide from machines strapped to their backs.

An employee at Zhouqu's centre for disease control, named Zhang, said more than 100 people had been assigned to disinfect the zone, including the makeshift morgue.

Authorities have told residents the bodies will be kept in the morgue for two days once they are pulled from the mud. If not claimed, they will be taken away and buried in mass graves to avoid any disease outbreak.

Beyond the human corpses, dead animals are also a concern, and workers from the local agriculture and animal husbandry department have been dispatched to take care of their remains.

"We've found dozens of animal carcasses, mostly pigs and dogs," said Du Yuelin, standing on one of the rivers of mud that swept through the town, where a dead pig lay out in the open, emitting a foul stench.

Some relatives have managed to buy coffins to transport their loved ones to their final resting place, but these are in short supply in the mud-ravaged town.

"There's no one here to make coffins since all those who make them are participating in relief efforts," said woodworker Yang Runqing.

As San walked dejectedly away from the morgue to tend to his nephew's burial, another resident remarked on his good fortune to be able to find the body at all.

"He's one of the lucky ones - so many won't be able to bury their relatives," the man said.

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