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The Earth swallowed them

TP Nijeesh

Kavalappara was picture-postcard beautiful till a landslide levelled it into a dark brown sea of mud and a smattering of burnt orange. TOI reports on horror and hope as the search continues for 21 people still missing

The Waiting is endless, but more than the waiting what saps the spirit is that there is no room for hope. Or probably, the only hope is that if and when the Bodies are dredged up from the mud, there will be something left to identify. From the beginning, you know it’s all over, except that you have to wait for that final bit of heart-breaking evidence to finally say that it is all over.

Sunil is one of those waiting at the site of the Kavalappara landslide disaster near Nilambur in Malappuram district. He’s from the nearby Muthappankunnu Colony and he has been waiting at the disaster site for the last seven days. Among the 59 declared missing (38 bodies have been recovered so far) after the landslide occurred on August 8, there are 21 people still missing and eight of them are Sunil’s close kin — his father, wife, son, sister, brother-in-law and their three children. “How can I sit at the camp when rescue workers are searching for my dear ones. I stay here till evening when the search operations are concluded and return to my relative’s house. I come again early in the morning,” says Sunil stoically.

It’s been more than a week since the Kavalappara tragedy and exhuming bodies from the mud and debris has become a gut-wrenching exercise. To begin with, the stench is unbearable. Even worse, when the bodies come up from the earthmover’s steel jaws, the rescuers struggle to make out whether it’s man, woman or child. “The bodies that are being exhumed now are just a bundle of mangled flesh covered in clothes. It is very difficult to identify them. The relatives look for remnants like gold chains or physical features like a bald head. We mistook an elderly woman’s Body for that of a child because of the size,” says Sugunan, a policeman from the Malabar Special Police who is on duty at Kavalappara.

Sugunan is the hardier type, being a policeman and all that. However, not everybody else among the rescuers can claim that. “I vomited and swooned after exhuming three bodies buried deep in the mud. I withdrew from the scene as the job was more than I could bear. I am a daily wage worker and this is the first time I am passing through such an experience”, says Shajahan Edavanna, the driver of an earthmover. “I returned to duty on Friday. Today, we succeeded in recovering one more body,” he adds.

The photographer and I were witness when they recovered that body on Friday. Things were looking normal; the whole area wore the usual eerie calm, punctuated only by the purr of machines, fragments of whispered conversations among the aid workers and officials that floated on the breeze. Suddenly, there was an extra-loud ‘stop’ uttered by a man standing atop one of the earthmovers that was ploughing through the muddy fields. It was both a scream and a command. The machine immediately came to a screeching halt and the rescue workers waiting on the sidelines rushed to the spot wading through knee to waist-deep slush. They picked up the dismembered body, covered it with a sheet, slipped it into a body bag and took it to the temporary mortuary for inquest and postmortem examination.

Primary cleaning of the body is done at the site itself by the rescuers before taking them to the make-shift mortuary set up at the local mosque. The official identification of the body is done at the body in the presence of relatives. “The injuries found on bodies indicate that most of them were crushed to death due to the collapse of structures. Mechanical obstruction is cause of death in most cases. In most of the bodies there were several injuries indicating that they were dragged for some distance by the gushing water” explains Dr Ajesh P P, assistant police surgeon, who is a member of the team conducting the post-mortems.

Relatives of those missing who wait at the spot rush forward every time the officials announce the recovery of a body. Many return with blank eyes after they realise that it was not the body they have been searching for days. On the second day of the tragedy, the rescue team began searching for Sakeena, whose husband was swept away along with a concrete slab in the sudden gush of water and topsoil. A portion of her body was found in the debris the next day. Her relatives were not ready to bury the body without the remainder of her body and they waited a night. After another search, the remaining part of the body was recovered the next morning and the body was buried in the graveyard of the local masjid. Victor, another survivor, who kept up the hope of retrieving his child from the ruins alive, broke down when the inert body of his daughter was dug up from his collapsed house. He was trying to find his child on his own before the arrival of the rescue team.

The tales of shock and maddening distress are galore: It was the body of 60-year-old Mathi that was recovered first from the debris by the earthmovers. The spot was pointed out by Mathi’s son Gopi, who narrowly escaped the disaster. The body of Mathi’s grandson, 12-yearold Gokul, was also lying nearby. When rescuers continued the search in the same spot next morning, the bodies of Gopi’s wife Priya and 14-year-old daughter Prajisha were also found there covered in mud and soil. On the fourth day of the rescue efforts, rescuers found the body of 30-year-old Priyadarshan – he was found sitting on his motorbike. The body of his mother Ragini was found lying nearby with an emergency lamp in her hand.

Pramod Kumar M K, station house officer at Tirur police station, in charge of the ‘retrieving point’, said that the bodies exhumed in the initial days were in an unmutilated condition. “Now we have no time to carefully exhume the bodies as they have started decaying. We search the places from where the smell of the bodies emanates,” he reveals.

Meanwhile, as the light begins to fade late in the afternoon on Friday at Kavalappara, Muhammad Musthafa remains on the spot. He’s waiting for the bodies of his sister’s children and his brother-in-law. “The bodies of my mother and sister were recovered two days ago,” he says. “I was away in Kavanoor on the fateful day. Had I been here I would have never allowed my family to stay on here at this dangerous spot,” Musthafa says.

Like Sunil, Musthafa too has lost his entire family. The water and mud have taken them away.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

via TOI Blog

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The Earth swallowed them


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