On the Radio: ‘Body, Body’

Times Staff Writer

They spread out like ants across the landscape of destroyed buildings, twisted wire, fishing nets and tree limbs Friday, wearing pink gloves and surgical masks. In bands of twos and threes they searched, poking with sticks, prodding, kicking at stones and looking behind trees.

The 150 or so young men, each earning $1 to $2 a day, are searching for cadavers, something they’ve been doing all week.

They already have found most of the cadavers in the main part of this flattened beach town. A few animal remains can be seen here and there, including the carcass of a dog near what used to be a Catholic church. The dog appears asleep in the sand until it becomes apparent that rigor mortis has frozen one of its legs at an unnatural angle above the ground.


But those can wait.

The main focus now is an area just to the south of the main part of Mullaittivu, marked by muddy marshland and scrubby short palms.

Not only is it relatively inaccessible, but it is also becoming a receptacle for much of the tsunami’s castoffs.

As Sunday’s deadly waves hit Sri Lanka’s east coast, they surged deep into this low-lying area until they eventually subsided half a mile inland.

Mullaittivu, 180 miles northeast of Colombo, the capital, is in the region controlled by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The rebels have their own administration, police and courts beyond the reach of the Sri Lankan government.

The coastal town was also the scene of an intense battle in 1996 in which an estimated 1,000 government soldiers were killed by rebels in an attack on an army base.

Despite its high casualty rates and huge destruction from the tsunami, the region -- because of its relative isolation and separate administration -- has received less outside attention than other parts of the island.


As the water receded after its deadly surge, it relinquished hints of the lives it destroyed: a red suitcase, a beach chair, a fishing lure, a little girl’s party dress, along with the remains of their owners.

“Body, body,” comes the crackle over Siva Kumar’s radio.

“We are very busy,” the 30-year-old worker says. “The smell is very bad.”

After hearing the location, he races along a dirt road and down a small lane, past a Tamil Tiger policeman guarding one of the few remaining houses to prevent looting.

Reaching a clearing, Kumar heads a few hundred feet into the dense underbrush to the right where a couple of dozen workers, most wearing nothing more on their feet than flip-flops, have already converged.

From another direction comes a backhoe, followed by a farm tractor hauling a load of firewood.

Tangled in a particularly dense thicket, near a briefcase with partly disintegrated family snapshots, are the badly decomposed bodies of a woman, a child beside her who looks to be about 8, two other children and another adult.

Children and the elderly have made up a disproportionate number of the dead, experts say, because they are generally not strong swimmers.


The backhoe maneuvers through the dense palms. Several workers hanging off the cab in all directions offer the driver unsolicited advice on how best to maneuver through the obstacles and into position.

After several attempts with the machine’s jerky arm, the driver eventually manages to position the bucket under the remains of the woman, whose body is naked from the waist up and, after nearly a week in the open, badly bloated.

The corpses slip in and out of sight in the ooze, their mouths open and tongues bloated in a silent scream.

The body of one of the children, dressed in a striped T-shirt, appears to have already settled into its muddy grave.

Eventually, however, one of the men with the pink rubber kitchen gloves, using a stick, guides the child’s arm and part of its torso back into the scoop of the backhoe, its hand the last to disappear in a gesture vaguely reminiscent of a parting wave.

It takes the driver about five minutes to coax all of the bodies out of the muck and onto a small embankment. He then moves on to the next site.


There is not a lot of ceremony here, nor is this genteel work.

On Wednesday, Kumar and his team helped remove about 100 bodies; he can’t remember exactly how many. They found 34 on Thursday and 22 more by midday Friday.

Overall, there may still be a couple of thousand bodies in the immediate area.

There are too many left to uncover and dispose of to worry much about niceties, he said, and too little time left to counter the threat of disease.

There’s little thought of reuniting them with loved ones, identifying them or even moving them beyond the bare minimum, given the lack of refrigeration and adequate mortuary facilities.

In the end, everyone receives the same treatment. The remains of well-heeled holidaymakers and impoverished peasants, happy children and grumpy old men are viewed less as the tragic last vestige of a once-vibrant life than as a possible catalyst for disease.

With the bodies now in two piles, one of the men moves in with a commercial sprayer and releases a fine mist of black-colored disinfectant. The several dozen men who’ve been watching from the sidelines now kick into gear, dragging the logs from the tractor and piling them on top of the bodies until they’ve created a 5-foot asymmetrical pyramid.

Several more men now appear and pour blue kerosene from red soda bottles over the pile, their role in this division of labor.


In a small spiritual gesture, one of the workers attempts to sprinkle a few grains of rice, a traditional blessing, atop the pile.

But the rice is clumped and gets stuck in the plastic bag. With many more pyres to go today, he tosses the bag of rice at the pile, but it bounces off into the mud.

Another man touches a lighted match to the chemical-soaked wood and the blaze roars to life, its petroleum-fueled smoke joining dozens of other fires on the horizon.

As the crew wraps up, Kumar’s radio crackles again.

“Body, body,” a voice rings out. “Another one here.”

The group splits in two directions.

At one site, there are two babies, about 30 feet apart.

At the other, a mother and child wrapped in each other’s arms.

“It’s very sad,” Kumar says before moving off to rejoin one of the groups.

“OK, we must go.”