Closure. That’s what Ms Esther Cheluget, 56, wants the most from life.
It pains her to imagine that her son, Jeremiah Koskey, may have died in a road accident, killed by a gang or drowned in a river but she doesn’t know for sure.
Even more painful is the thought that his body may have been buried in a mass grave.
No son. No body. No explanation. To her, it almost seems like he was dumped like garbage.
It is now seven years since the resident of Ingoboor in Nakuru County last saw her son. He had visited her at home in Chepseon on a Thursday, stayed for the weekend and left on Sunday evening for Nakuru town, where he worked.
“He always used to call a neighbour’s phone whenever he wanted to talk me. When he did not call that Sunday, I did not sense anything was wrong. After a week, I went to my neighbour’s house to ask if I could speak with him. I loaded her phone with Sh50 airtime and tried to call him but his phone was off,” Ms Cheluget said, adding that she immediately sensed that something was amiss.
It was unusual for her son to go two days without talking to her. She asked a relative for help in tracing him.
“That marked the beginning of a seven-year search for my son. We went to hospitals and morgues in Kericho and Nakuru counties in vain. We went to Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Kitale. One of his brothers even quit employment to dedicate his time to searching him,’ Ms Cheluget added.
That brother was Henry Koskey. He said he wanted to help his mother in the painstaking search.
“It has been the most difficult seven years of my life. I have seen countless bodies, some badly damaged. It is difficult,” he said. A relative called in April last year to show him a list published in the papers with a name similar to his brother’s. It was among the 96 that were scheduled for disposal in Nairobi. But that newspaper was three years old. The family had no chance of ascertaining the body’s identification as it had long been buried in a mass grave.
“It wouldn’t be a good idea to exhume a whole mass grave four years on,” he says, adding that he has always blamed himself, wishing he had put in a little more effort in the search.
This is the pain thousands of families whose missing kin were buried in mass graves feel. It exposes the tragedy that befalls the relatives of these missing persons, when the country has a robust identification database under the Department of Immigration Services in the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government.
City Mortuary Senior Funeral Superintendent David Wanjohi says that when bodies overstay in a morgue, the institution notifies the county chief officer for health who gives a green light for a list to be published in the newspapers notifying the public that the corpses would be disposed in a week.
“From there, we obtain a court order to allow us to bury them in mass graves. When bodies are unidentified, we also have to seek court orders allowing us to dispose the bodies,” Dr Wanjohi said.
Yet, it only takes a little effort and a working system to identify bodies that may have been retrieved with no proper identification documents.
At crime scenes, police have been dusting surfaces for fingerprints which they use to identify criminals. This has for ages been used in legal proceedings.
“This same forensic science should be used to recovery identify bodies,” security analyst Kennedy Kibet says.
Kenya lacks a standard database on missing persons and relatives who report their kin as missing (someone is legally declared missing after 48 hours of last contact) may only present photographs rather than medical records, fingerprints or dental records.
This makes it difficult for investigators to match identities, especially where bodies have been dismembered or are decomposing.
When accidents happen or a body is found without identification documents, the law provides that the police should collect and take it to the mortuary. There, the police are required to take fingerprints and start the process of forensic identification.
Once an adult’s identification details have been retrieved from the database, the police are supposed to work with the provincial administration to trace the home of the deceased based on the information they gave while registering for their IDs. The police pass the information on to the local administrator who then informs the dead person’s family. This makes it possible for the family to trace and collect the body.
Chief Government Pathologist Johansen Oduor says that the identification of bodies would be easier if the police, the National Registration Bureau and the holding facilities cooperated.
He decries the “worrying lethargy and lack of coordination” among governmental departments, the hospitals and the law enforcement agencies.
“We have tried this and it worked. But the challenge is that there are no police officers attached to the National Registration Bureau to follow up with the chiefs to trace the families,’ Dr Oduor says.
The identification of people whose details are captured in the national database is very possible, Dr Oduor says, only that there is laziness on the part of the authorities who should be doing that job.
In turn, the mortuaries are flooded with bodies beyond their capacities, forcing them to dispose of them in mass graves after seeking court orders and agonising hundreds of families who may be searching for their missing kin.
A police officer attached to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) admits that there is laxity on their part because they are overworked. Most of the officers assigned to the cases do not bother to follow up on the families.
“There is no way to ensure that an officer takes responsibility. Whether you trace the family or not, nothing will be done to you. Why leave important cases to queue at the NRB looking for someone’s identity, yet you are not even sure the county commissioners will follow up on it?’ he posed.
Rule 3(a) of Legal Notice No. 205 of the Public Health Act Cap 242 of 1991 prohibits families from keeping a body in a public mortuary for more than 10 days.
The law permits mortuaries to dispose of bodies after 21 days after getting orders from a court and giving a 14-day public notice.
Last year, over 1,250 unclaimed bodies were buried countrywide. At the Mbagathi County Hospital mortuary alone, 97 bodies (56 male and 41 female) were buried.
Data from the City Mortuary shows that it received 4,115 bodies in 2016, 4,025 in 2017 and 2,016 in 2018. The Nation could not find the number received last year. The Nakuru County Health Department recently moved to court seeking to bury 20 unclaimed bodies that had been lying at the Nakuru Level Six Hospital mortuary for three months.
The Naivasha County Referral Hospital disposed of 26 bodies. The mortuary can only hold 12 bodies at a time. In Isiolo, the Public Health Department disposed of 19 unclaimed bodies at the referral hospital’s mortuary which has storage capacity for only 10.
Legally, institutions of medical schools and research institutions like the University of Nairobi, with permission from the Minister for Health, are permitted by the Anatomy Act Cap 249 to procure unclaimed bodies for studies.
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