Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 November 2019

After Cyclone Idai, a Mozambican morgue works around the clock

Beira’s only depository for bodies has a grimmer shift than usual after the Category 2 storm

As Manuel Gimoeo walks out of the depths of Beira’s municipal morgue, draped in a blue bodysuit and orange gloves, a co-worker shouts to him and calls him “chefe,” Portuguese for boss.

The grey-bearded, portly man is the director of the central coastal city’s only depository for bodies, and his team of 22 staffers are working around the clock to deal with the influx of victims killed by Cyclone Idai, which devastated this area of Mozambique last week.

“The work has been quite busy because a lot of bodies have come in and also bodies going out,” he said.

It has been a “very difficult job,” he said, the most arduous since he has been the director of the morgue. “Because it’s never happened [before], it’s an event that scared many people. For us the work has been very intense.”

A morgue worker stands at the entrance to the freezer area next to a cross where prayers are made before families take their relatives away in Beira, Mozambique. March 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
A morgue worker stands at the entrance to the freezer area next to a cross where prayers are made before families take their relatives away in Beira, Mozambique. March 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National

According to locals, rumours have been spreading on WhatsApp around Beira that the morgue is overflowing and dead bodies have been lying around the building for lack of space. Others have said that bodies were taken to the city’s medical university and put on tables there.

But Mr Gimoeo refutes this. The morgue has the capacity to hold 104 bodies, and it has not yet surpassed that number even after the cyclone’s trail of destruction has killed four times that number. In the late afternoon on Friday, no visitors were present at the mosque to identify and pick up deceased relatives, nor those who waited to find out the fate of their missing loved ones.

In Mozambique, 446 people have been confirmed dead and aid groups say that number will almost certainly rise as receding floodwaters reveal more devastation. With 228,000 displaced people now languishing in organised and informal camps, and reports of disease beginning to emerge, the death toll could climb further in the weeks and months after the cyclone’s landfall.

The 49-year-old morgue director says he has kept the building operating throughout the cyclone, a testament to him and his staff.

The damaged roof of the morgue’s freezer area is covered by roped down blue tarpaulins. Inside the morgue’s front office, a red bucket collects drips from the ceiling that leaks after more than a week of being battered by torrential rain and fierce winds.

Manuel Gimoeo, the director of the only morgue in the Mozambican city of Beira, stands at its entrance. March 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
Manuel Gimoeo, the director of the only morgue in the Mozambican city of Beira, stands at its entrance. March 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National

Past a large crucifix on the front office wall, hung for prayers before families take their identified relatives away, lies a crematory and a generator that has kept the morgue operational in a city without power. Several staff members look unoccupied, sitting around on benches in the office, while another cleans the floor with chemicals.

While Mr Gimoeo downplays the numbers arriving, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned on Friday that the building was overflowing as the city’s cemeteries were flooding, making burials near impossible.

"The mortuary at the city's main hospital is full and there are dozens of bodies that need to be removed and cared for in a dignified way," it said in a statement.

But the director says the arriving cadavers have had no problems specific to the cyclone, despite the 170 kilometre-per-hour winds that smashed into Beira, and the influx has been managed smoothly by the morgue staff.

“Since the disaster, to manage the bodies hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “No difficulty.”

“The bodies are the same when there is a cycle,” he continued, referring to the process that a dead body goes through. “Because of the low temperature and the pressure, the bodies swell. There is nothing...that is not normal.”

The mortuary cold chamber resembles a scene out of a horror movie. Twelve rows of rusting, white metal doors are matched by an equal number on the other side. In the middle, a dull light emits from a long LED bulb that hangs low after being knocked halfway to the floor by the Category 2 storm.

The bodies are stored at five degrees Celsius but amid the humid, tropical air, the smell is overpowering.

The director offered a wry smile as a newcomer entered the freezer area then, after the grisly stench of the decomposing bodies hit their nose for the first time, he laughed.

“No photos,” the boss said, the grin still etched on his face.

Updated: March 27, 2019 12:26 PM

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