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After Cyclone Idai, bodies litter Mozambique’s fields, and the true death toll may never be known

A man stands near where a body was found along the Lucite River in Magaro, Mozambique, on Tuesday. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
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MAGARO, Mozambique — The smell of death hovered in the air by the river.

Stephen Fonseca looked up at a tree branch 30 feet above the crocodile-infested water and saw the source of the stench — a decomposing body, hanging upside down, its arms outstretched.

Fonseca, the head forensic analyst in Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross, wasn’t sure whether the body was that of a man or woman, adult or child. But it was clear it had been lodged in the tree in this small farming village almost two weeks ago by the torrent of water released by Cyclone Idai. Rains from the storm engorged rivers that burst and then relentlessly rose, turning into tsunamis that raced toward the sea, miles wide and taller than any building in their paths.

The work of recovering bodies across this vast area has just begun, and the process is beset by seemingly insurmountable obstacles: Countless people were not just killed but washed great distances from their homes, where they came to rest in fields or in trees, or were eaten by crocodiles. And many of the dead have already been buried by villagers, without being identified first. 

The flooding is estimated to have affected nearly 2 million people in Mozambique, where the official number of dead stands at 468. But the actual death toll from Cyclone Idai may never be known.

Fonseca is essentially a one-man operation, and he is the only forensically trained body recovery specialist working in rural Mozambique in the aftermath of the cyclone. He came to Magaro because local reports indicated a high body count nearby — 156 so far, mostly in the muddy cornfields, half-covered by debris.

The water is still receding here almost two weeks after the storm, and destruction is everywhere. Cornstalks drape power lines, and fields are coated with deep layers of silt. The crest of the flood can be measured by the line of mud in treetops. 

Downstream areas closer to the coast are still underwater, meaning efforts there might not start for weeks, when bodies will have almost totally decomposed.  

Looking up at the body in the tree, Fonseca lamented that he wouldn’t be able to recover it, let alone identify it. 

“Eventually it is going to separate and fall once the ligaments loosen up,” he said. “But there’s no way to get it without someone getting hurt, or falling to the crocs.”

None of the bodies found in Magaro and the surrounding areas had been reported to the national authorities — there is no central coordination. And all but one, the as-yet-unrecoverable one in the tree, had already been buried, many in customary homemade bamboo coffins.

“It’s a dilemma,” Fonseca said. “We can’t exhume the bodies, because these communities have gone to such effort to give a dignified burial. But that means we also can’t identify the bodies and try to match them with families that are searching. It is a matter of showing respect versus having dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of families that never know for sure if their loved one is dead.”

The work is arduous. A truck carrying Fonseca’s team was stuck in mud for a day and a night, and a car carrying reporters was damaged and knocked off a dirt road by a frightened bull.

Without a trained dog, Fonseca does the sniffing himself. His nose is particularly attuned to the chemical compounds that emanate from a decomposing body. One waft led to a deflated carcass of a pig. Another led to a more sobering scene. 

There, locals had recently covered the body of an unknown person in debris and banana leaves.

Fonseca took its coordinates down, affixed a fluorescent glove to a makeshift tombstone and told a crowd of locals that the body would need to be reburied under at least four feet of soil. Otherwise, dogs could dig it up, or a farmer could accidentally uncover it during the next harvest, or the water table could rise again and carry it farther from wherever it came.

“The smell is what makes us bury people quickly,” said Victor Machava, 34, a farmer from Magaro. “We know it is not the best solution. Many people even from here are missing. People here will not accept ‘missing.’ They will search forever. So many people will search forever.”

Mozambique is recovering from Cyclone Idai, which made landfall March 15. The storm brought massive flooding and resulted in 468 deaths in the country thus far. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Machava had returned to Magaro from a mining job in South Africa one day before the storm hit, simply because, he said, he got an inexplicable bad feeling. In the early morning hours after the cyclone passed over his home, the water outside was rising about an inch a minute, he said. His fateful decision saved his family.

“It was either stay and die or walk through the rising water,” Machava said. “I put one child on each of my shoulders, held my mother’s hand, and my two sisters followed behind us.”

“We lived,” he said. “Many died.” 

The storm’s timing was cruel: Idai landed on the eve of the harvest. When the water subsided and survivors returned to their fields, they found the entirety of their livelihoods ­ruined. Many are eating nothing but oranges from the tops of trees — the only crops that survived. 

Beyond the work by Fonseca’s team, villagers who survived are carrying out their own recovery efforts.

A local village chief organized 11 teams of two men to search for more bodies. The urgency is personal. People from Magaro, the nearby town of Dombe and the surrounding area have reported 51 people missing, and some villages on the banks of the Lucite River are still unreachable. 

The teams go out in canoes and bring back news each day of new bodies and haphazard burials, said Basilio Sinalo Charles, Dombe’s chief. But they recover bodies using their bare hands and have no equipment. 

When Fonseca offered Charles material support from the Red Cross, the chief was defensive. He said he understood the importance of recovering and identifying bodies. 

“This disaster happened almost two weeks ago — of course it would be ideal if we had body bags and gloves, but we have to bury the bodies as soon as possible,” he said. “It is the dignified thing to do.”

They travel through a landscape that would be bucolic if it weren’t for the destruction wrought by the cyclone. People are salvaging muddy corn from fields. Communities are disconnected from one another — and from receiving aid — by washed-out bridges. Malaria and cholera are thought to be breeding in the ubiquitous pools of standing water, raising fears of a second disaster. Drinkable water is scarce; a glass offered to a reporter in Dombe was boiled but filled with little insects. 

The people of Magaro are still coming to terms with the calamity.

Amid the detritus, they found the bodies of people rendered unrecognizable by the rage of the flood. And they saw more float down the Lucite River.

“As soon as the water left our fields, we went to see the damage and to look at the river,” said Moises Timei, one of Magaro’s survivors. “By that time, you could go to the river and see bodies floating. But they would just keep going and going down the river.”

No food, no water: After Cyclone Idai, mounting confusion, hunger and grief in Mozambique

‘It was too late’: Hundreds are dead in Mozambique and Zimbabwe after cyclone

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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