The dead are never as quiet as they seem.
More than 20,000 people died in a matter of hours in half a dozen countries in South Asia in one of the most catastrophic tsunamis of recent times, and the death toll is only going to climb. Although the world quickly forgets such natural disasters -- the body count in Bam, Iran, was 30,000 and it was just last year; hadn't forgotten, had you? -- the memory of the dead always lingers for those who meet them.
Ten years ago, an American relief worker named Rich Moseanko found himself in eastern Africa during a humanitarian crisis. That wasn't odd. Moseanko has spent the better part of two decades working in areas most people are desperate to leave.
What was unforgettable was that when he got out of his organization's truck near the city of Goma in eastern Zaire (since renamed Congo), he stepped into a Rwandan refugee tide of nearly a million people. The dead, felled by cholera and other diseases, were lying along the roadside by the score. Within days, more than 1,500 people would be dying every day. More than 25,000 are thought to have died in all, though no one really knows.
You know what Moseanko's most difficult job was?
Finding enough trucks to haul away the corpses.
"Going to bed every night with the smell of death in your nostrils, walking around all day with it, you just don't forget that," says Moseanko, the Los Angeles-based director of disaster relief for the nonprofit group World Vision. "The soil around Goma was volcanic rock, which meant there was nowhere to bury the bodies. We finally convinced the French [soldiers] to dynamite some holes for mass graves. I don't know that anybody was even keeping track. It went on for weeks."
Mass death isn't hard-wired in the brain as something that it is supposed to see, like thunderstorms or rain showers. People are supposed to die alone, perhaps in ones and twos, and those are the deaths that are personally meaningful. Human scale is intact.
Impact on aid workers
But the exposure to huge numbers of the recently and unnaturally dead is not a category that the brain keeps on file. The image -- or the smell; anybody who has worked around large numbers of the dead will tell you it's the smell that's the most disturbing -- entwines itself in the long whipcord of memory, and there it remains, never to leave.
"Anyone who tells you that it doesn't affect you when it's all over just isn't being truthful," says Dewey Perks, chief of Fairfax County's Urban Search & Rescue Department, which has been sent by the federal government to work in some of the worst disaster zones in the world. Perks has worked earthquakes in Armenia, Turkey and Iran that killed tens of thousands, whose corpses were dropped in mass graves to prevent disease.
The mind does try, though. Aid workers, journalists and soldiers who have worked around mass death and misery will tell you the only way to keep working is to personally block out what one's eyes are seeing and focus on tasks at hand. It's a key tool of survival, and it isn't new.
To cite but one relevant example from the scrapbook of history: On Aug. 27, 1883, the volcano Krakatoa erupted off the coast of Java -- not far from the current disaster -- setting off a series of tsunamis. More than 36,000 people died.
A single sheet of water destroyed the entire town of Telok Betong in seconds. As recounted in Simon Winchester's recent bestseller "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded," an engineer named R.A. van Sandick, sitting on a steamer in the bay, had a front-row seat to the wall of water. He still couldn't tell friends what he saw.
"The tremendous dimensions of the destruction, in front of one's eyes, make it difficult to describe," he wrote, as if being an eyewitness were a hindrance to an accurate description of the event. The best comparison, he judged, was the wave of a magic wand "on a colossal scale and with the conscious knowledge that thousands of people have perished in an indivisible moment."
The bodies remain after such disasters, of course, and it is their presence that gives weight, scale and meaning to what transpired -- no matter the continent, no matter the era.
Stench on the tongue
In Sarajevo, during the height of the shelling and shooting in the Bosnian war, Alija Hodzic ran the morgue. He had to sluice the place with formaldehyde to get rid of the worms and the disease that came from hundreds of bodies. The smell was so thick that it left a taste on the tip of the tongue. Hodzic took long showers to try to wash away the stench. The memories, he said, never ran down the drain with the dirt.
In 1998, in Jesse, Nigeria, a ruptured oil pipeline set off a fire that killed perhaps 800 people in a matter of minutes. A day later, with the fire still blazing 30 feet into the air from the ruptured line, shirtless workers were paid about $1 per body to haul away corpses.
They did it this way: Each man would take a wheelbarrow next to a corpse. There was awkward shoving and lifting. The bodies were so badly burned that limbs came off if tugged too hard, but the corpses would eventually be wrestled into the wheelbarrow. Then the workers, sweating profusely, hands in long rubber gloves and faces covered by white surgical masks, pushed their loads to an open pit that had just been dug with a bulldozer. The wheelbarrow was upended and the bodies rolled down the embankment, one atop the other, each burned down to the muscle and bone.
That was 800.
In Sri Lanka, it could be 10,000 or more.
Marge Tsitouris knows those kinds of scenes. She oversaw 2,000 employees for CARE, the international relief organization, while she was assigned to Somalia in the late 1980s and early '90s, and 48 of her employees were killed. She was CARE's director of international relief operations from 1996 to 2002, and dealt with natural disasters the world over. She is now working a less emotionally draining job within the organization for a time.
She draws a distinct line between natural disasters -- when everyone wants to help one another, despite great suffering -- and conflict situations, where everyone does not.
"I sleep okay, because I think we're trying to do the best we can under bad circumstances," she says. "And I think everyone who does this type of work does try to put on a brave front. But deep down, if you're human, it bothers you, because you've seen the dead and met their families, and you have some understanding of the scale of tragedy."
It is, perhaps, the dead's final mark upon the living.