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Congo holds state funeral for victims of arms depot blast

A state funeral was held in Congo Republic’s capital Brazzaville Sunday for the hundreds of people who were killed one week ago when an arms depot blew up and flattened nearby buildings. The death toll from the blast stands at 246.


AP - Soldiers wearing gas masks on Sunday loaded more than a hundred coffins onto the beds of semi trucks and solemnly drove them across this city in mourning a week after a catastrophic explosion obliterated a section of the Republic of Congo’s capital.

Extra carpenters had to be hired to build the coffins in time for Sunday’s mass funeral. The municipal morgue stayed open all night so that families could finish the ritual washing of the bodies of the 159 people whose identities could be verified.

At least 246 people were killed one week ago when an arms depot inside a military barracks in Brazzaville went up in flames, setting off a lethal rain of grenades, mortars and shells. The detonation flattened churches, schools, homes and businesses, and many of the dead were unrecognizable so they were not included among those buried in the state funeral Sunday.

The semi trucks pulled into an open esplanade in the center of Brazzaville. The unmistakable odor of death seeped through the blond wood of the hand-hewn caskets, and mourners covered their faces with towels. The families sat in a special section under an awning. Many held framed portraits of their loved ones.

Albert Onongo sat in the second row, a picture of his 7-year-old son leaning against the legs of his chair. The child, he said, ran out when the first explosion went off last Sunday, and was hit in the head by shrapnel. Onongo said that he stopped crying a few hours ago, when he went to wash his child’s body at the morgue, a funerary tradition in much of Africa.

“I saw his body, and the tears stopped. I haven’t been able to eat or to sleep. For a father to lose a child, it’s incomprehensible,” said Onongo. “He wanted to do everything just like his Papa. He called me his ‘best friend.’ Now he is giving me strength to go on.”

Overnight, families camped in front of the morgue, waiting for the name of their dead to be called on the outdoor speaker. They held shopping bags with the new clothes bought to dress their loves ones.

Coffins were being hauled out of a shed on a trolley, pushed by four men wearing face masks. When their turn came, families were given 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.

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.

After the body is washed, clothed and laid to rest, the coffin was wheeled out, with the family tailing behind.

The mother of a 16-year-old girl who died after being hit by a shell, wept uncontrollably, as her child’s coffin was rolled away for the procession. She placed her hand on her heart, as if to steady it. A man who had lost his son walked out of the morgue, his hand clasped over his mouth. Yet another woman stood alone, swaying from side to side, wailing softly. Her arms were raised, as if imploring the heavens.

The dead were crushed inside collapsing homes, under falling beams and ceilings. They died of blunt trauma, hit by grenades, mortars, shells and rockets. But the explosions also claimed the lives of those that were not directly touched either by the falling walls or flying missiles - 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 carried away by morgue workers.

Families were promised 500,000 francs (around $1000) per relative for burial clothes. Fights broke at the cashier set up inside the morgue when many were given far less at the cashier.

Waiting for his family’s name to be called out late Saturday, Paul Lubaki pulled out the receipt showing he received only $80 for his 4-year-old grandson. He says the child-sized dinner jacket cost $70, and he wanted his grandson to be buried in the finest outfit possible, so he also bought a new dress shirt, pants and a bow-tie, costing him several times the allotted amount. Anger at the government is reaching the boiling point.

The government had promised three years ago to move the military arms depot located in the Mpila neighborhood in the northern part of the capital after a less deadly explosion in 2009. The depot was never moved. The cause of the fire that set off the detonation has been blamed on a short circuit, according to the government spokesman. But residents claim that witnesses saw a soldier throw a cigarette butt 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 at around 8 a.m. last Sunday. He said his daughter’s body was so mangled under their destroyed house, that 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 plans to bury her in the clothes of a princely bride.

At the esplanade, the semi trucks lined up next to a red carpet. Each casket was adorned with a plastic wreath of red and yellow flowers. Dignitaries took turns walking in front of the coffins, and laying more wreaths. The trucks will then carry the caskets to a roped-off section of the central cemetery where they will be buried together.

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