- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

HARARE, Zimbabwe — The nation’s economic disaster is horrifyingly evident in the morgue at Harare Central Hospital, packed to more than three times capacity with the dead that relatives can’t afford to bury.

The morgue, designed for 164 corpses, holds nearly 600.

Trays in the morgue often hold more than one adult body, along with the tiny corpses of infants. Others, shrouded in canvas and cotton sheets, lie in gurneys or on the floors of the refrigerated corridors.

Some of the unclaimed cadavers are those of vagrants found dead on the streets.

Others are the victims of violence kept for as long as three years during police investigations, often delayed by fuel shortages and logistics problems amid Zimbabwe’s worst political and economic crisis since independence in 1980.

Many of the corpses are awaiting collection by impoverished relatives, including some who “just disappear and abandon them” in hopes they will be given decent “paupers’ burials” by the city, said Dr. Chris Tapfumaneyi, the hospital’s medical superintendent.

As a result of the crisis amid rising mortality rates, Dr. Tapfumaneyi said late last week that hospital officials have decided to give dozens of the bodies to the city’s medical school.

The hospital has donated 42 cadavers to Zimbabwe University’s medical school, the first such donation in at least three years, he said. The medical school has promised proper burials of the remains after they are used for teaching purposes.

In a nation plagued by a hunger crisis and an estimated 5,000 AIDS-related deaths a week, funeral homes hired to bury the unclaimed dead also are overwhelmed.

At the same time, city authorities have run out of money and gasoline, paralyzing ambulance, garbage collection and other services.

Zimbabwe is suffering massive inflation and unemployment. A lack of hard currency has led to shortages of food, medicines and fuel, which has crippled industry.

A routine burial — including cemetery and grave fees, a casket and transportation — costs at least $120 at the official exchange rate or less than $40 at the black-market rate.

That is twice the average Zimbabwean’s annual income and is well out of reach of the 70 percent of people here living in poverty. Most rural poor bury their dead on family plots in the bush, following African spiritual traditions.

As the Harare municipal cemeteries filled with AIDS victims in recent years, a raft of suggestions — for mass graves, for bodies to be buried vertically, and for cremation — have been met with outcry by political and tribal leaders.

White Zimbabweans of Indian descent favor cremation, but in June, Harare’s cash-strapped city council ran out of imported gas for the furnaces at its only crematorium.

Since then, private funeral homes have accumulated nearly 100 bodies due for cremation. A few bodies have been taken to the second city of Bulawayo’s diesel-fired crematorium.

But diesel fuel, like regular gasoline, is also in short supply, and Bulawayo’s ordinances make it difficult to cremate a person who did not live there.

Leaders of Harare’s tiny Hindu community, meanwhile, have said they are considering waiving strict religious rules to allow non-Hindus to be cremated in their small diesel-fired crematorium here.

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