The macabre puzzle of piecing together victims at Sri Lanka morgue
AFP – The nauseating smell of death that infested the streets around Colombo’s morgue after Sri Lanka’s devastating Easter attacks has finally dispersed.
But forensic pathologists are still attempting to identify the remains of bodies blown apart by suicide bombers, the final pieces of a macabre puzzle.
While staff have so far returned 115 victims to their relatives, there are still some 50 bags filled with unidentified remains in the morgue’s refrigerated rooms.
The fragments are a somber reflection of the brutal force of the bomb attacks claimed by the Islamic State.
It also helps explain why the death toll from the blasts has fluctuated considerably. At first Sri Lankan authorities said 359 had died before slashing it to 253, and then raising it again to 257 this week.
In one bag "there are two parts of a cheek –- one cheek with an ear, one with some scalp and an ear. That could be two people," said Ajith Tennakoon, the head of the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology.
"The proper management of dead bodies is to identify them and to give them respect and dignity."
He said the staff’s "prime duty" is to hand back the bodies to relatives so they can say goodbye to their loved ones in accordance with different religious beliefs.
During the meticulous reconstruction, even the smallest clue is helpful: a piece of jewellery worn by the victim, a patterned piece of clothing or a distinctive scar.
Where possible, forensic pathologists examined teeth and fingerprints but DNA tests are the most reliable method of identification.
Among the last body bags could be the remains of six people still missing since the bombings, as well as the suicide bombers.
They could also include victims whose remains have been returned incomplete.
– Solving a crime –
The forensic doctors are also investigators. They may be able to find clues that identify the attackers or the types of explosives used.
From a drawer, Tennakoon pulls out a see-through plastic bag which holds a lead ball — one of those used by jihadists as shrapnel to maximise the damage.
"We also have to help to solve the crime, it is a crime, a man-made disaster," he added.
The work of piecing together bodies is more painstaking in Colombo than the other affected cities of Negombo and Batticaloa because of the nature of the bomb attacks.
"If the bomb takes place in a concrete-built structure, the damage is much worse," said Anil Jasinghe, Sri Lanka’s director general of health services.
"That is what happened in the hotels, they were concrete buildings."
Although 102 people died in one church in Negombo, almost all the bodies were returned the same evening.
The blast blew the roof off the building, allowing the air pressure to escape through the top.
But in a confined space, a sudden rush of air causes considerable devastation.
"What counts more than anything are the shock waves, they move faster than sound and at very high velocity, which actually could tear bodies apart," said Jasinghe.
As forensic pathologists continue to puzzle over the fragments still lying in body bags, victims’ relatives who had gathered outside the building in temporary marquees — where they had the distressing task of identifying their loved ones through photographs — have long since left and the tents taken down.