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No faces, only horror
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 02 - 2002

Relatives of the dead from last week's tragic train accident were traumatised anew when, to identify their loved ones, they were asked to sift through piles of charred bodies at Zeinhom Morgue. Khaled Dawoud was with them
As soon as rescue operations ended at the site of last Wednesday's tragic train fire near Ayatt, the bodies of nearly 370 victims were moved to the main Zeinhom Morgue in Old Cairo. Another human trauma started there.
The majority of passengers squeezed inside the extremely overcrowded carriages of the ill-fated "third class" train -- mainly peasants and workers living in southern provinces of Upper Egypt -- would not have informed their parents, in small villages and towns, about their visits. So when news of the blaze spread, hundreds of relatives from as far away as Aswan, 900km south of Cairo, rushed to the capital -- full of uncertainty and desperately hoping that their loved ones were not among the victims.
Others, who were sure their beloved were among the dead -- usually because a close relative or a friend was on board the train but managed to survive -- were hardly in a better condition. Many were unable to identify the bodies of their relatives because of the terrible condition of the corpses.
For three days, grieving and shocked families had to go through the painstaking process of examining the mangled and badly charred bodies in an attempt to identify their relatives. Conditions inside Zeinhom Morgue, which was built for a maximum capacity of 200 bodies, only made things worse.
Bodies were piled on top of each other in several empty rooms. It was left to the relatives themselves to remove the bodies, unfold the white cloth in which they were wrapped to check their faces, and then put them back on top of each other without proper order or respect for the dead.
"I can't believe what I have seen. It was horrifying," said one old man who was among the uncertain coming to Cairo from Minya to check whether his son was among the dead. "When he last visited months ago, he promised to come see us at Eid. I hope he did not," the man added, weeping hysterically.
Inside the morgue, several families fought over bodies, each claiming it belonged to them. In one incident two families, one Christian and the other Muslim, claimed that the body of a young man belonged to them. The Muslim family said their deceased son was 25, while the Christian one said he was 35. Only a forensic examination solved the dispute, and the body turned out to belong to the Muslim family.
Desperate families, helped by doctors, clung to whatever minute details they could remember about the bodies of their loved ones to identify them. A golden tooth, a scar, metal pins from previous accidents. Anything.
In another bizarre incident, reflective of the chaos that prevailed at Zeinhom Morgue, local newspapers on Sunday told the story of a man who came all the way from Sohag to Cairo to bring the body of his son back home for burial. The man was indeed given a body, only to receive a call, two days later, from his supposedly dead son. The son was calling to tell him that he did not board the train and was still alive.
"I want a body. I have to get a body," screamed another man from Upper Egypt who said he was looking for his brother. The man said he was certain that his brother was on board the doomed train. A third brother was among the survivors, he said. He had saved himself by managing to jump while the train was driving at a high speed.
"Without a body, how will we get a death certificate. Who will look after his children?" the man asked. His words reflect the sentiments of the many distraught families who gathered at Zeinhom Morgue.
According to health officials, only around 220 of the bodies were positively identified. These were the lucky ones. Their families can now obtain an official death certificate, which allows them to carry on with the rest of the procedures -- such as collecting the small compensation payment which the government has ordered, and other donations made by several Arab and Egyptian businessmen.
The remaining, unidentified, victims -- whose bodies were burned beyond recognition -- were buried in an official mass funeral on Sunday, a day later than had been scheduled. Sensitive to the anger and frustration of grieving families, the government decided to delay the burial by one day to give people a chance to identify more bodies.
At Al-Imam Al-Shafie in Old Cairo, in a cemetery where martyrs and the unknown are buried, nearly 2,000 people turned out to pay their last respects.
"I have spent the past three days looking at each and every dead body," wailed Mohamed Hassan from Assiut, who said he lost his brother. "I don't know how I am going to go on living after that. But I could not find my brother. He is one of those buried here," he said, pointing to 10 graves in which the bodies were buried.
At the cemetery, several senior officials showed up in their black Mercedes cars, heavily guarded by police. President Hosni Mubarak's political adviser Osama El-Baz, however, stood in the middle of the crowd of mourners without guards. As soon as a few people recognised him, they started screaming loudly at him, but he did not lose his cool.
"What's gone has gone," a huge Upper Egyptian man screamed at El- Baz. "What we want is more trains. We don't want to see this accident happening again. Please treat us like human beings."
El-Baz hugged the man and asked him to be patient, and reminded him of God's will.
But in statements to reporters, he also vowed that the "president personally is very concerned to see that serious improvement takes place in third class trains, and that they all be equipped with necessary safety measures."
Al-Ahram Weekly asked El-Baz when exactly this would take place. "In three months, I promise you," he said. Until then, it seems, a repetition of last week's tragedy could take place any time.
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