Rep. of Congo builds 200-plus coffins after blasts

AP News
Posted: Mar 09, 2012 7:48 AM
Rep. of Congo builds 200-plus coffins after blasts

Coffinmakers on Friday hurried to build more than 200 identical caskets for the victims of last week's deadly explosion ahead of Sunday's state funeral, following a government request that the coffins be identical in both material and design in order to convey the national character of the loss.

At least 246 people were killed last Sunday when a fire inside a military arms depot set off a series of detonations, shattering windows as far as 10 miles (16 kilometers) away. The blast zone looks like a leveled field, a panorama of flattened houses, churches, schools and businesses.

At the warehouse where the coffins are being made, the bald heads of workers were covered in a fuzz of sawdust. One group cut the planks. Others nailed together the paneling.

The dimensions are noted in pencil on the wall: Ninety-three large coffins, measuring 6 feet, 3 inches (1 meter, 90 centimeters), for the adult bodies retrieved from the rubble. The rest of the dead are children of varying ages. Their remains will rest in smaller coffins ranging between 4 feet, 11 inches and 3 feet, 11 inches (1 meter, 20 centimeters, and 1 meter, 50 centimeters.)

The coffins are being made out of the same blond wood from a local tree called the kambala, known locally as a "noble" wood because of its durability. Each one will have a satin interior, the same material to denote the equal nature of each person, said coffin-maker Toubi Eloge. He said the government had originally ordered coffins from a neighboring country, but the caskets sent were of varying designs, and could provoke jealousy among victims' families.

"It's like sending a bunch of shirts, some with long sleeves, some with short sleeves," he said. "There were coffins made of glass. Coffins made of fancy wood. This is a national matter. We don't want anyone saying that so-and-so got a prettier coffin than someone else."

Anger at the government is already beginning to boil over. Officials had promised to move the arms depot outside the city three years ago, when a smaller explosion made clear the risk to the population.

Next to the warehouse where the coffins were being readied, a crowd waited to receive the $1,000 that the government had allotted each family to pay for burial clothes for the dead. A mob surrounded the state funeral director, Fulbert Malonga, shouting at him when he emerged. Many of the families said they waited hours and once they reached the end of the line, they were only given $500 per dead adult and $200 per dead child.

"This is money to dress the dead, for burial clothes. Your relative has to be on the list of identified bodies to get the money," the director shouted back, before retreating into his office late Thursday.

Alena Dabangi, an elderly man with eyes clouded by bluish cataracts, said he had come to collect the money on behalf of his sister-in-law, who was crushed under a falling church, and his 7-year-old grandson, who died in their collapsed home.

"Unfortunately they are saying that these deaths are not the same. That a child between the ages of 5 and 10 is only worth 100,000 CFA ($200). And an older person 250,000 ($500)," he said, his eyes suddenly watering.

The dead are to be buried together in a plot inside the municipal cemetery, separate from the rest of the graves. Toubi said the Muslim victims will be placed in caskets, but the coffins will then be removed just before burial in keeping with the Muslim tradition of burying the dead in a simple shroud. The caskets of the six Chinese construction workers who were also killed in the blast will also be removed, said Toubi, and their bodies will be repatriated.

Government spokesman Bienvenu Okiemy announced on Friday that the government would also pay around $6,000 for each destroyed house. He also said that a new district of 5,000 homes will be constructed to house the homeless families in the neighborhood of Kintele located 14 miles (25 kilometers) north of Brazzaville.

He announced that the government of Chad had already sent around $1 million and China had sent $3 million for the reconstruction. Experts from all over the world are arriving in Brazzaville to help with the humanitarian effort including a 74-person Moroccan team, as well as mine experts from England and the United Nations who are here to try to clear the blast zone of unexploded ordnance.

Because unexploded bombs, rockets, mortars and shells still litter the blast zone, rescuers have not yet launched a coordinated rescue effort. It was only on Friday, a full five days after the disaster, that the Red Cross was expected to receive training from mines experts on how to begin removing bodies safely. It's one of the many frustrations of grieving families, many of whom had to pull their dead relatives out themselves.

"My brother had just reported for duty on Sunday morning. He was assigned to the police post in the barracks," said 45-year-old Guy Lape. "He went to change into his uniform, when the explosion happened. We called his phone, and it rang and rang for days. We went to every single hospital looking for him. His bosses never contacted us, there was no help. It was only when we found one of his colleagues that we learned that his body was still under the debris."

Lape said that they pressured the military and finally on Wednesday, they agreed to take a unit to the crushed police post. They found his body, his bag and his ID. As Lape was talking, an angry relative of another one of the victims grabbed a rock and hurled it at the wall of the state funeral home.