Where the dead have no name

October 22, 2011

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A solitary man digs a grave; the sound of a shovel hitting the hard soil echoes under the hot sun.

Precise in measurements, a five-foot deep, two-and-a-half foot wide grave is being dug for body number 73,725. This is the Edhi graveyard for unidentified bodies, situated in the desolate land between the Balochistan and Sindh border.

The Moach Goth graveyard is the third such graveyard in the area, the previous two having been filled to capacity with a150,000 graves. Over the past 28 years, almost 74,000 bodies have been buried here, says Khair Mohammad, the caretaker.

With a population of 16 million and growing, Karachi isn’t too kind to its people. The Edhi morgue in Sohrab Goth receives around 40 to 50 bodies every day, estimates Mehmood Ali, a worker at the morgue. Drug addicts, the homeless, road accident fatalities, domestic crime victims, suicide bombers and criminals shot dead – all find there way here.

Inside the cold storage where the dead have been washed and wrapped in white cloth, lie bodies awaiting identification.

Those identified have their faces covered, the unidentified don’t. A boy no older than 14 mouth agape, a middle-aged woman with her face frozen in pain, a tiny bundle of white placed high on a steel shelf – all remain in the morgue waiting.

If no one comes for them in three days, they are photographed; their pictures placed in red photo albums next to other nameless faces, and the book closed shut.

At the graveyard, a small wooden plank with a number painted in black is hammered into the mound of dirt. Sometimes after a body has been buried a family member will find the picture of their relative in one of the albums kept at the Edhi morgue. Khair Mohammad and his son will exhume the grave and return the body. Often however, family and friends choose to leave the body in its final resting place simply adding a tombstone.

On the road leading to the graveyard, the sound of a rickshaw gets louder as it nears. Khair Mohammad pulls out a piece of paper from his front pocket, grave number 73,456 has a visitor.

Number 73,456 was Mohammad Ayub up until a few days ago. Born in 1951, Ayub was a chowkidar by profession. He was on his way home when he fell sick, sat down by the side of a road and passed away. The police found his body and sent it to the Edhi morgue. No one came for him and he was buried here. His younger brother, having not talked to him for a few days, finally made the journey down from Muzzafarabad to Karachi. Mohammad Ayub, now has a pukka tombstone.

At the morgue in Sohrab Goth, two men carry a body shrouded in white on a stretcher, past men lined up to see those thick red albums, past a group of women quietly waiting on benches, past a freezer full of dead people. A woman follows the stretcher wailing. She has identified him in time, saving him from becoming number 73,725.

Text by Sara Faruqi, video by Hussain Afzal.