- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

SYDNEY, Australia The sun-bleached bones of a mother and child were being exhumed from their makeshift grave over the weekend as the FBI tried to solve the riddle of five skeletons that washed up on a remote Pacific island.
The bones, the gruesome cargo on board 13 sturdily built rafts found on the shores of Woleai, one of nearly 600 scattered islands of Micronesia, have stirred superstitious fears and puzzled police. Officers are no closer now to establishing the identities of the sailors than when their remains were found more than four months ago.
The first skulls and bones were discovered in mid-September by fisherman Uandiki Eschon. He spotted a well-made bamboo raft, six feet wide and four feet high, entangled in tall weeds, just yards from the sandy shore.
"It was the construction that caught my eye," he said. "It was made from giant bamboo, which does not grow on any of our islands. I knew it must have traveled some way. When I pulled in the raft it was strewn with bones."
As more rafts arrived, some with bodies, some empty, the superstitious islanders grew uneasy. "I wish now I had not found them," said Mr. Eschon. "I wish I had left it to someone else to make the grim find."
Mr. Eschon's chilling discovery was the skull and bones of two persons, one of them a baby, curled up together. At the feet of the baby's skeleton sat a bunch of rotting bananas and a pot of rice. Whatever else had happened, the pair he believes they were a mother and child had not died of starvation.
Mr. Eschon had stumbled on one of the most bizarre nautical mysteries to have emerged from the Pacific. Another 12 similar rafts, containing the remains of the other bodies, have now been washed up on the shores of the remote islands, where women still dress only in traditional grass skirts.
Though the islanders are Christian, superstitions abound. The locals, frightened of inviting the wrath of the gods, buried the first two skeletons to appease their spirits. They are convinced that the bodies are somehow connected with the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Five months later, no one knows who the sailors were, where they came from, where they were going or how they died. Local police are so baffled that they have asked the FBI, which has an office in the nearby Guam island, to exhume the bodies for DNA testing.
The initial investigation was undertaken by Cpl. Alexander Elian from the local police.
"The raft was like a little house," he said. "Inside there was a very old kerosene lamp, tattered clothes and empty water containers. Then I saw the bones. Some were leg bones, others ribs. It was as though it had come from the other side of the world."
The most plausible theory is that the rafts were built by people fleeing ethnic violence in nearby Indonesia. A faded identity card belonging to a man from Bitung, in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi 1,000 miles to the southwest, was found on board one raft.
While the region has a history of clashes between Christians and Muslims, there were no such incidents last year, and Indonesian authorities say they know of no refugee exodus.

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