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Treating Typhoon Haiyan's Victims With Dignity

Posted: 02/12/2013 17:22

I recently visited one of the coastal neighbourhoods hardest hit by super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Thousands of people had lived in this shantytown, known locally as a 'barangay', located just 200 meters from the ocean's edge.

But it doesn't exist anymore. Homes were washed away by the typhoon's gale force winds and huge storm surge. All that remains are sporadic remnants of everyday life - a doll here, a t-shirt there, a TV remote on the floor, a small family photo album.

As we were wrapping up our work I decided to take a quick walk and about 75 meters in, I came across two bodies. One appeared to be a young man and the other was a little girl in a white dress, about six years old.

For the two weeks since the typhoon, these bodies have been laying face up - staring into the alternating blazing sun and pouring rain. The smell of decomposition was overbearing, but I couldn't look away from the little girl in the white dress. It seemed so wrong for her to be left to the elements like that, and stared at by anyone passing by. It also seemed wrong that other children could easily stumble across her, including possibly a brother or sister.

Unicef is not in the business of body retrieval - we are about supporting the most vulnerable children in the world through our actions in health, nutrition, education, child protection, water and sanitation. But that girl seemed the most vulnerable child of all so I resolved to have her body dealt with properly.

The local fire department was overwhelmed but suggested we contact a body retrieval team from Mexico. Their only vehicle was busy, presumably collecting other corpses, so we gave them a lift to the barangay. There, the team began their detailed work - photographing bodies for later identification, interviewing the small group who had gathered around to collect information as to who they might be, checking wrists and necks for identification jewellery and taking careful notes of the exact location of the bodies.

They picked up each body and placed them in the thick, dark blue Philippine Red Cross body bags. They did so compassionately, kneeling down beside the little girl in the white dress, laying her gently into the protective warmth of the clean bag as if they were tucking her into bed, and placing her hands across her chest.

Ever so slowly, the bag was zipped up. No more oppressive sun, no more pouring rain, no more buzzing flies, no more curious onlookers - just a safe and quiet peace, finally.

We thought it was over, but sadly their work had only just begun. The local people pointed out seven other bodies lying twisted and turned among the debris and uprooted palm trees in the surrounding swamp. Five of them were children - about nine, seven, five, four and two years of age - and all of them were girls.

The team ran out of body bags so for the last girl, searched until they found some strewn about bed sheets which they washed in a pool of water. They wrapped her in the makeshift shroud and placed it inside a big colourful green and yellow piece of plastic sheeting. Somehow this makeshift body bag with its bright, beautiful colours seemed perfectly fitting for the lively spirit of a child.

Within two hours, the team had dealt with all nine bodies and treated them with the dignity they deserved. The team laid the bodies together to be collected on a clean concrete slab, probably once the foundation of a home, with their feet pointing towards the ocean.

Unlike a fortnight ago, the ocean was calm and gentle now, with the waves peacefully breaking on the beach. It seemed as if the ocean was filled with remorse about what it had done and was trying to apologise.

We heard the three adults and six children had been safely retrieved while outside a crowded church where Unicef has been supporting displaced families. I was preparing to give an interview about the emergency vaccination campaign when a young man walked out from the church, through a nearby door.

He was holding the hand of a little girl, perhaps his daughter, little sister or niece. They didn't say a word as they walked but as they passed by, they both looked over and smiled. The little girl was happy, healthy and protected. The little girl was wearing a white dress.

 

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