BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — Women wearing masks against the odor of death threw themselves over the graves of their dead children, while men had to be restrained to stop them from hurting themselves as more than 100 victims of last week's arms depot explosion were laid to rest in a mass funeral Sunday.
Republic of Congo's government scrambled to organize Sunday's mass burial, which took place exactly one week after an arms depot inside a military barracks caught fire, setting off a lethal rain of grenades, mortar rounds, shells and rockets.
Extra carpenters had to be hired to build the coffins. The municipal morgue stayed open all night so that families could finish the ritual washing of the bodies.
At least 246 people were killed, but only 159 of the bodies could be identified in time for Sunday's funeral. The scene at the morgue in the hours before the burial, and at the cemetery after the coffins were lowered, was one of chaos, punctuated by pain.
The last body to be identified on Sunday morning was that of Jean Mbarushimana's 17-year-old brother. The teenager was killed by a flying shell, and the family brought the body to the morgue itself. But the morgue removed the young man's clothes and on Saturday, when the family returned to do the ritual washing, they could no longer recognize him, his features erased by decomposition.
"I went and bought a pair of boots and went body by body. I stayed up all night. He was the very last one at the back of the morgue," Mbarushimana said.
Coffins were being hauled out of a shed on a trolley, pushed by men wearing face masks and white lab coats. Families arrived on Saturday and camped out in the morgue's parking lot, waiting for their names to be called on the morgue's speakers. They stood holding shopping bags with the new clothes they had bought to dress their loved ones.
When their turn came, they were handed gas masks and ushered into the tiled floor of the morgue. Inside, female relatives washed the women's bodies, while male relatives washed the men's, a funeral rite common in much of Africa.
On Saturday, an elderly man who had lost his child had a heart attack during the process, said an emergency responder who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The mother of a 16-year-old girl who died after being hit by shrapnel wept uncontrollably, as her child's coffin was rolled away. She placed her hand on her heart to steady it. Another swayed from side to side, her arms raised, as if imploring the heavens.
By midmorning on Sunday, 145 coffins had been piled onto open bed trucks. Another 14 were set aside at the request of families whose rites differ, including the Muslim victims of the blast. They will be buried in a simple shroud.
The trucks were driven by soldiers wearing gas masks against the stench. The caskets were taken to an esplanade, where President Denis Sassou Nguesso laid a ceremonial wreath at the foot of the first truck.
They were then driven to a sandy field where identical holes had been dug, lined in cement. A young man who lost his entire family had to be restrained after he became violent. His friends held him down on his back. He grabbed a fistful of dirt and threw it into his mouth, as if to choke himself.
At the lip of each grave, families wept. Many wore masks against the overpowering smell. Germaine Amboulou was splayed out next to the grave of her 7-year-old. "Jesus. Oh Jesus," she sobbed.
The dead were crushed inside collapsing homes, under falling beams and ceilings. They died of blunt trauma, hit by grenades, mortar rounds, shells and rockets.
But the explosions also claimed the lives of those that were not touched at all — like Mireille Massanga, pregnant with her fourth child. She was three days away from her due date, said her cousin Rufin Tchikaya, and when she heard the blast, she scooped up her children and ran as fast as she could for almost 1 mile (1.5 kilometers).
When she was out of harm's way, she stopped running, but her heart didn't. Her family rushed her to the emergency room, and she died in the long line of people waiting for treatment, said Tchikaya. "They thought she was in labor, and the hospital had no time to deal with a simple pregnancy," he said, as her coffin was taken for burial.
Anger at the government is starting to boil over. The road to the cemetery had to be cordoned off by riot police on Sunday, after frustrated mourners began hurling stones. Families were promised 500,000 francs (around $1,000) per relative for burial clothes. Fights broke out at the cashier set up inside the morgue when many were given less.
The government had promised to move the arms depot located in the Mpila neighborhood in the northern part of Brazzaville after a less deadly explosion in 2009. The cause of the fire that set off the detonation has been blamed on a short circuit, but residents claim witnesses saw a soldier throw a cigarette inside the armory.
A soldier who worked at the barracks and who asked not to be named in keeping with military protocol stood silently outside the morgue, waiting for the name of his 22-year-old daughter to be called out. He had left the barracks just before the first blast. When he returned to his destroyed house, he said his daughter's body was so mangled, he initially walked past her corpse, not realizing it was his child.
His eyes watered when he was asked if he blamed the military for her death. He had a shopping bag with him, in which he had folded a new, beaded bridal gown, still in its plastic covering. His daughter was never married and so he planned to bury her in the clothes of a princely bride.
Associated Press writers Louis Okamba and Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report.