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Single morgue copes with Karachi's death toll

By Tehmina Qureshi   |   Nov. 11, 2013 at 1:37 PM   |   Comments

KARACHI, Oct. 30 (UPI Next) -- As Ghulam Hussain prepares for another day at work as manager of the Edhi Morgue, the only functioning morgue in Karachi -- a city of more than 18 million and the explosive nerve center of Pakistan -- on the other side of town a large bundle wrapped in a white shroud is loaded by two men into an ambulance.

The red-stained shroud does a poor job of hiding the bloodied corpse inside.

On arrival at the morgue, the bundle is gingerly carried inside. On a good day, this would be the first of five bodies Hussain receives.

"Sometimes, there are as many as 10 bodies in a day and other times even more," he told UPI Next.

As the police officer rattles off details about the corpse -- where it was picked up, the clothes it was wearing, bullet wounds, any identifying features -- Hussain jots them down in the register in front of him.

He writes the number 138,289 on a piece of paper and pulls it under the string holding the shroud in place. The body is then sent to cold storage, where other wrapped corpses lie side by side on steel bunks.

"If we wash the body at once it changes the way they look and families have a hard time recognizing their loved ones," explains Hussain.

The port city of Karachi accounts for about 40 percent of the country's gross domestic product, 73 percent of its income tax and 64 percent of sales tax revenues.

Hardly a day goes by when someone is not robbed or killed, or a trussed-up body is not found by the side of the road. City newspapers carry stories of such violence daily.

Through June of this year, 1,726 killings were recorded by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. About eight people have died each day this year, on average.

Last year -- the deadliest in two decades, with 2,000 fatalities, according to the commission -- it took nine months to reach 1,800 bodies. Of the total killed this year, more than half were killed by robbers or bomb blasts.

The morgue has certainly been busier this year, Hussain said.

In March, a deadly bomb attack ripped through the city's Abbas Town area, killing 48 people.

"Even the morgue's floor was covered with charred bodies," another morgue worker, Mohammad Siddique, recalled. Siddique bathes bodies before they are sent for burial.

Hussain says of every five victims of violence, two are claimed by their families, while the rest are buried in the Edhi graveyard. The morgue charges about $10 for keeping a body in its cold storage, $6 for pre-burial bathing and $23 for an austere wooden coffin.

The fee is hardly enough to cover the cost of the electricity bill, which amounts to about $4,700 a month. Maintenance of air conditioners alone costs up to $187 per month.

The morgue was set up in 1984 by the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan's largest charity organization, after founder Abdul Sattar Edhi saw the need for somewhere unclaimed dead could be buried with customary religious honor.

The foundation was provided with 10 acres of land in Mawach Goth, an area on the outskirts of the city by Mayor Abdul Sattar Aghani, burial site administrator Anwar Kazmi told UPI Next.

The land soon filled up and the government gave the foundation 20 more acres.

Now, at least six unclaimed bodies are buried there each day.

In the first six months of the year, the foundation buried 828 unclaimed bodies. Last year, it buried more than 1,500; the previous year, more than 1,700.

"Since 1985 we have buried at least 217,000 bodies here," Kazmi said.

Two government hospitals in Karachi also have cold storage facilities, but they are seldom used, the city's chief medical examiner, Jalil Qadir, said.

"Often when bodies, including those of high-profile criminals, are kept in the hospital morgues, their relatives often come and wreck the facilities and injure doctors on duty. This is perhaps why the hospital authorities are not interested in keeping their morgues functional," the chief of forensics at Karachi's Sindh Jinnah Medical University, Dr. Muhammad Ali Mondhra, told UPI Next.

Meanwhile, corpse No. 138,289 lies on the cold steel bunk in the morgue. No. 138,281 lies beside it.

People come and go. Some have brought their late loved ones in for final burial rites. Others come searching for their loved ones.

Though Hussain's job is to guard the dead, he said it gives him a deeper appreciation of life and its fluidity.

"Once we received the body of a girl who had been raped. Her body had been found lying on the street. But her father refused to own his daughter and take her body home because he was angry at his daughter for running away," Hussain said.

"I kept the body for 11 days thinking that the father would change his mind and come back to claim it. But when it started to turn blue and decompose I had to send it for burial."

Meanwhile, two men arrive at the morgue. The younger man is looking for his older brother, missing for the past three days. He is taken inside the cold storage room to see if he can recognize someone. He does.

Corpse No. 138,281 has been identified as the victim of a shooting in the troubled south zone of Karachi.

Three days after arriving at dawn, corpse No. 138,289 is taken out of cold storage with five others. A photo is taken of the face, with the body number placed below.

Night shift workers give him his final ablution. The stained shroud is replaced. He is loaded back into an ambulance and taken to his final resting place in Mawach Goth, in the graveyard for the unknown.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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