The Grim Business of Collecting Bodies in Haiti's Cholera Epidemic

Mass graves for cholera victims are next to mass graves for earthquake victims.

PORT au PRINCE, Haiti Dec. 1, 2010— -- The green paint is peeling, but you can still make out the letters: "Morgue." A line of makeshift hearses lines the side of the building – a pickup, a converted taxi, a pair of beat up Chevy Caprices. A shriveled man in a torn shirt is washing their dented hubcaps.

We circled around back. A woman is splayed stiffly on the floor of the morgue. She looks like she's sleeping. She must have been in her mid 50's. Flies perch lazily on her face and shoulders. A pair of feet juts out near her shoulder, another victim.

Moments later an orderly pushing a gurney topped with a white body bag rolls by. He dumps the body in the back of the morgue just inside the green gate as if it were a load of gravel.

Caskets are lined up in side. Some propped up against the wall. A trickle of fetid water oozes down the ramp. We sidestep it.

My soundman – who's admittedly superstitious -- says something passed through him. Later that evening he's puking his guts up.

With all the sickness around it's easy to become paranoid about infection. You become conscious of every hand you shake, of the breath of each subject you interview. You remember that you kneeled in mud that might have been contaminated by vomit or diarrhea, or that you brushed up against a wall that someone may have been sick on, that cholera and death hang dense in the air.

So after each stop, we squirt thick dollops of hand sanitizer in our hands. Each night the crew used Clorox wipes to clean their equipment and we disinfect our muddy boots. We pop doxycyline and cipro. We know it may be overkill. It's hard to catch cholera from shaking someone's hand. One actually has to consume a certain number of particles through the mouth to get sick, literally drink a dose of sewage.

This is our second trip here to cover cholera. We've become accustomed to seeing death. Cholera is sweeping through this country, methodically claiming its percentages. In a typical outbreak, 2 percent of a country's populace is likely to become infected. Here some say it'll reach 8 percent. Here that's 200,000 people. Of them, thousands will die. And they are dying.

Last week we came upon a man who had died in along a main boulevard in downtown Port au Prince. He'd perished moments before we'd arrived, his limbs still pliable as a sanitation crew in yellow rubber suits worked him over. Cholera is a disease that offers no dignity, no privacy. The crew yanked down the dead man's soiled pants. He'd clearly died in agony, losing his last fluids as he died. Gawkers gathered staring and covering their mouths with shirts or sleeves, anything to stop the germs.

We were shooting the scene as his body was sprayed with disinfectant, zipped in a white plastic body bag. As we were shooting, his mother drifted through the shot. We wondered who the person was infiltrating the invisible cordon of fear that held the rest of the people back, but she kept gliding by.

We realized later who she was and enlisted some locals to help us find her. A few hundred yards away we did. She seemed to float to us, hands folded around her head. She was so slight. Her chestnut-sized eyes seemed all that was left of her.

"He was all I had. My only child," she said through a translator. She looked bewildered, her big eyes bugging. She told us she lives on the street now, after the earthquake leveled her house. She had lived with her son somewhere on the street.

In a teeming city of millions, she was marooned. Worse, she couldn't even claim the body, as they do with the dead here. Her son was contaminated.

Cholera kills its host, but adds indignity by surviving in the corpse. It's a main reason mayors fear riots if they allowed cholera victims to be buried in their towns and villages. So the bodies are being dumped an hour north of the city, in a grassy valley overlooking the Caribbean populated by fat cows.

We'd enlisted a trio of toothless guides who we found near a cholera clinic to lead us there. Three of them sandwiched on a tiny motorbike. We bump through a village. They pull over. We think for gas, but they buy tiny squeeze bottles of bleach. (Many Haitians will stuff chlorine soaked gauze or cotton balls in their noses to protect themselves, apparently unaware that cholera is contracted through the mouth.)

We follow them miles out of town, thinking we're on a wild goose chase. They ask directions. Finally a young man by the side of the road is located – a grave digger. He hops on the bike and the third "guide" rides on our spare tire (out of the car). We bump along an unmarked dirt track. The surgical masks, latex gloves, and occasional hospital bracelet show us the path.

We come across a 20 foot deep trench, sliced right through a mass grave with the layer of rag-clad skeletons like some macabre geological strata. This had been the site where tens of thousands of Haitians had been dumped after the earthquake. No grave markers, nothing at all to indicate that this is one of the biggest burial sites in the world. Now the nameless cholera victims join them.

We stopped by a fresh grave. The grave digger told us it was for the new cholera victims. The previous day, he'd dug five of the graves we saw. There were about 20, maybe more. Beyond those graves a group of rusted crosses – earthquake victims. They were the lucky ones. At least they got a marker.