By D. I. E. Aleku
Involved as casual labourers, neighbours claim they were duped to partake in construction that the new venture coming to their area was a hotel. Mainly impoverished internally displaced persons (IDPs) that had acquired plots there, they envisaged employment opportunities with the hospitality facility.
“We fetched the water for building on falsehood that the site was a branch of Edward’s hotel,” says Matilda Anyeo. “Edward was a renowned hotelier around and who wouldn’t want to benefit from his success.”
Success indeed; but this was a scandal in waiting that would recruit them into permanent macabre witnesses of an unspeakable abuse of the dead at their own backyards. An imposed specter that has gone on for 15 years now since reality dawned turning the short-lived euphoria into indomitable agony.
“We were wrong to be carried away by glitz without second thought,” says Sarah Adeke. “We were only told the place is a mortuary after it started work and when we complained, the authorities promised refrigerated cabinets, which cabinets have never come yet the bodies inside waste away to skeletons before burial.”
It’s impractical to embalm mangled accident bodies but embalming solutions and freezers could be the last essentials to this dead-house before its closure someday. Corroborative graphic descriptions of alleged housefly-swarmed bodies left on the floor for up to two weeks, fault municipal accounts that under-declare the situation.
Seemingly, stifling bureaucracy forgets these are noxious perishables that render the entire surrounding uninhabitable. Nevertheless, the invasive stomach-churning stench polluting the surrounding is said to kill even the most gluttonous appetites that families have abandoned eating fish as coping mechanism.
“Fish has a strong smell of rot that attracts fat green flies from corpses to our utensils and containers in search for water,” says Mary Aliao. “You cannot serve children or visitors from outside without those disease-carrying insects falling and dying in the food.”
Sandwiched in residential area, neighbours according to Alex Olaja have tried in vain to protest existence of the premises sited in the middle of a football-pitch-size cemetery. Immediate neighbour himself, Olaja says municipal has ignored their pleas that include a signed petition to relocate the much dreaded structure.
But the district chairperson, George Michael Egunyu apportions blame that the crisis is down to wealthy individuals that flout development plans. Ex-Soroti municipal Mayor in-charge at the time of the mortuary and cemetery allocation, his position on the problem comes as promised in our earlier article.
“By the time we allocated the mortuary and cemetery there, that was an isolated area not residential and what came after are plans of my followers,” says Egunyu. “All those buildings next to the mortuary are on wetlands and in 2006 when I lost the elections, they were not there.”
The rich according to Egunyu don’t adhere to the rules and are unstoppable. Once you stand on their way he adds, they accuse you of anti-development.
“I regret joining politics because you do things with utmost sincerity, people take it the other way round,” laments the bearded towering politician. “I tried for example to stop wetland allocations but the chairperson land board said I was taking over his job.”
Similarly, Egunyu is not afraid to name renowned proprietors in town that made physical planning a nightmare during his tenure. He believes the mortuary location there is appropriate except it has been mismanaged and that his stance against illegal structures has left him an enemy to many property owners.
Indeed, large portions of the affluent, Maroon quarters are not only sited on wetlands but graves that were earlier on buried there before fencing. The multi-million uptown suburb is on the National Environment Management Authority eviction list though demolition of the perimeter-walled houses bridging Nakatunya and Soroti government prisons remains to be seen.
Meantime, none of those accused of encroachment seems to heed warning in that construction of new permanent structures continues as ever. Incidentally, the issue once again highlights the ugly chronic problems of multiple and misallocation of plots that not only dogs Soroti but the entire Uganda urban setting.
How corrupt officials blatantly give out swamps and road reserves to prowling rich persons leaves a lot to be desired. The aftermath of the fraudulent transaction usually becomes a blame game between municipal and land board authorities.
“That is more of an administrative issue and the town clerk is the right person to answer,” says Samuel Peace Otati, the physical planner, Soroti municipal council. “It has an element of protocol but if he clears me up to speak, I shall be much obliged.”
Nevertheless, cemeteries are protected sites with regulations forbidding construction especially of real estates within a given zoning area. On the other hand, it’s inconveniencing to live by the mortuary and it takes ages to get used.
Different persons react differently to funeral processions though the similarity is psychological, religious and traditional among others. Young families would detest raising children under such scary environments than the elderly who could be seeking sacred life.
Standard cemetery allocations take into account the risk of groundwater contamination or pollution. It’s illegal to establish a cemetery within a groundwater sensitive area technically called the source protection zone one (SPZ1), which falls within 250 metre radius from a borehole or a spring well.
The groundwater itself should not be less than 2.8 metres below ground level, which leaves so many questions with Soroti municipal mortuary and cemetery location. It’s not clear whether the architects of the premises weighed in options that the site could be located near a wetland or probably closer to Nakatunya main spring well, which provides hundreds of residents with drinking water.
“The problem is that those are developments that took place before I was transferred here,” says Emmanuel Natal Banya, the Town Clerk; Soroti Municipal Council. “The good thing is that the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources is coming to Soroti and those responsible of the allocations shall be called to answer.”
Cemeteries are known to contain inherited chemical properties from the preserved bodies even after graves have been closed. Yet, it’s common oversight world-over to site cemeteries without thinking of potential risks to the local environment and community.
Several contemporary studies published show how cemetery pollutants diffuse to surrounding soils and leach into groundwater. Embalming chemicals, mineral corrosion from burial materials such as varnish, sealers, metal handles and ornaments used on coffins are some of those harmful toxins.
Soroti municipal cemetery is a recent establishment free from arsenic, which is a highly toxic and powerful preservative predominantly used in the ancient times. Poisonous, the metallic element now used mainly to kill insects and weeds was abandoned after realizing that it’s the longest-enduring contaminant.
Yet, that does not justify formaldehyde use, which is the main ingredient in embalming chemicals today with almost similar side effects. Similarly, the arsenic exclusion does not have control over mercury toxins from dental fillings once the body has decomposed.
Incidentally, the main reason for embalming is to delay decomposition to complete a funeral process. Intriguing, unknown amount of formalin is buried down with bodies yet, World Health Organization classifies formaldehyde as hazardous waste with human cancer causing elements.
Soroti municipal council though does not preserve bodies in their mortuary no matter how long they take stirring health risk fears within the neighbourhood. Beside formaldehyde cost constraint, the authorities seem overwhelmed by the notion that trauma or disaster-related deaths defy established protocols of dealing with the dead.
“Embalming is a difficult process that needs intact bodies yet accidents victims especially motor vehicle are usually wounded,” says Dr. Alfred Anyonga, in charge Diana Health Centre IV that oversees the mortuary. “We don’t wish bodies to rot in there but have to wait for police instructions yet rotting starts immediately accident occurs.”
The mortuary and cemetery are exclusively properties of Soroti municipal council and not for Diana Health Centre IV. Initially, municipal managed the facilities using local revenues but when the monies were centralized and funding shifted to primary health care vote, Diana was co-opted as a conduit.
The authorities apparently think that save for psychological effect to the community; it’s cheaper to delay burials than exhume bodies for incomplete investigations. The thought seems stems from the fact that there is no scientific proof that bodies of the victims of tragedy increase epidemics.
“I man eight districts as a regional police surgeon and we as police don’t stop other doctors from helping us with postmortem except they are passive all the time,” says Dr. Joseph Ongaria. “I may be out on a workshops or following results from the Laboratory in Wandegeya, Kampala and yet postmortem and death certificates are important because the deceased could be having loans or land.”
Nevertheless, distinguished health experts dismiss fears of disease spread through trauma-killed bodies as unjustified. Unless the person had been sick before death, experts say there is less contagion risk hence the dead do not constitute a health hazard.
Soroti municipal cemetery neighbours therefore seem to suffer from what health experts call incorrect notion that all dead bodies inherently cause diseases. The notion the experts add is consistent with the incorrect historical miasma theory of disease, which holds that diseases are spread by foul air; in this case fouled by stench of decomposing corpses.
Indeed, microorganisms involved in decay process are not pathogenic and dangerous to humans except confusion between normal decay processes and signs of disease is what fuels fear. Worry that dead bodies are infectious according to experts is normal human reaction by persons wanting to protect themselves from disease.
Furthermore, there is little research evidence of groundwater microbiological contamination from burials and where it’s occurred due to unburied bodies, cemeteries or mortuaries, there has been resultant spread of gastroenteritis from normal intestinal contents. As such, there has never been any reported gastroenteritis outbreak in Nakatunya where the mortuary and cemetery are located.
Inevitably, decaying bodies emit stench due to cadaverine and putrescine elements found in flesh. Severe oral toxicity can only occur if swallowed in massive doses hence concerns of neighbouring a cemetery are more psychological than physical.
Established coincidentally with the rebel Lords’ Resistance Army (LRA) incursion into Teso sub-region, the mortuary first housed fleeing IDPs that occupied any space they found in the municipality. Self-invited, displaced persons with an overwhelming influx gained access once the contractor finished work and left the doors without padlocks.
The IDP camp itself was not far from the place giving chance to some men and women to inhabit the structure unknowing it was a new unused mortuary. Sadly, the authorities were not humane enough to evict them politely without causing stampede.
It’s alleged on the fateful night of maiden mortuary use characterized by a blackout in town, the authorities stealthily dumped bodies in when the IDP occupants were out for a drink. The drunks settled back for sleep unaware they were sharing the house with more than five corpses only to realize when the power came back in the middle of the night.
“The ensuing commotion tore apart the stilly night as the occupants scampered for dear lives towards the door,” says a neighbour who preferred anonymity. “Two bodies had been left on the autopsy bench while three others on the floor appearing as though LRA hallmarks.”
Hard-hit by electricity bills, the mortuary initially lit with power. Well-intentioned, mismanagement of the facility has ruined good neighbourliness and coexistence with the surrounding community.
Childbearing age women disclose that foul air pollution has forced them to practice family planning in order not to risk stench-induced miscarriages. The place is a frequent ugly battle site between the authorities and the bereaved relatives to pay mortuary charges.
Besides payments, to-and fro paperwork to reclaim remains is a nightmare that exposes bereaved families to desperation. Issuance of the police authorization letter to the mortuary to hand the body over to relatives or undertakers for burial takes ages prompting neighbours to wonder why humiliate the dead.
The cruel way of burying the dead openly reminds many of their own departed dear ones. The traumatic scenes means the residents must resort to prayers to break the forces of darkness or else the weak in holy rites suffer the wrath of nightmares.