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Disinterring the dead in Colombia

It's dawn and the mosquitoes gather around me in clouds.

After the man was disinterred his remains were  reduced to  a small pile of bones with a machete
After the man was disinterred his remains were reduced to a small pile of bones with a machete

Standing outside the locked iron gates of Apartado Municipal Cemetery, in Colombia, there is no sign of the graveyard caretaker, who is late for work.

On the main highway that runs adjacent to this final resting place, the early-morning commuters are already sweeping past on motorcycles and buses heading for work.

Watching the passing truckloads of banana plantation workers and schoolchildren, I can't help wondering how many of them have family, loved ones or friends buried in this cemetery.

For a long time Colombia has been a country with an infamous reputation. For going on 50 years this nation has been subjected to Latin America's longest-running conflict, in which left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and the country's government and army have slogged it out in a bitter and barbaric struggle. It is against this backdrop that many of those buried in Colombia's cemeteries lost their lives.

According to a study by Colombia's National Centre for Historical Memory, more than 220,000 people have died through acts of violence, and today in this northern town I have come to see where some of those victims finally end up.

At last, the caretaker arrives and takes me on a tour of the graveyard.

In alcoves, the remains of the dead are often kept with small pictures and personal artefacts, turning them into tiny shrines.

"You can see that some are soldiers, but most are simply civilians killed in the war," the caretaker tells me as we walk between the tiered concrete shelves that families rent or buy.

Many of these small alcoves have been created out of expediency because of the rental expense or through pressure of space for larger plots in the crammed cemetery.

Some here have never been identified and are buried in unnamed graves. Antioquia province, in which the town of Apartado sits, is one of those with the most unidentified bodies from the war.

As we stroll around the grounds, a man and woman without the slightest hint of shyness invite me to watch the disinterring of a man's corpse. "We are moving him to another, smaller plot," explains Jose Manuel as he helps the caretaker pull the coffin from an alcove, watched by what turns out to be the deceased man's widow.

Her husband, she tells me, died of natural causes four years earlier and the plot is expensive so they need to chose a smaller one.

What followed was something for which I was totally unprepared, as the coffin was opened to reveal the man's clothed cadaver, in places still remarkably intact.

Unceremoniously, his remains were reduced to a small pile of bones by the caretaker using a machete, who then bagged them up for removal to the new downsized alcove.

Throughout the whole process Jose Manuel nonchalantly took photographs with his mobile phone as the deceased man's widow stood quietly alongside.

"Death is not something we are unused to in Colombia," said the caretaker by way of simple explanation.

In almost 30 years as a foreign correspondent, violent death has played a depressingly substantial part in the stories I've covered. But dealing with death, be it violent or otherwise, is something we will all be confronted with at some time in our lives.

Coming as I do from northern Europe, I've always been struck by the myriad customs, rituals and attitudes that surround death and burial worldwide.

Some years ago in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, I visited the "valley of 12 villages". There, the Kalash people live in three valleys; the smallest minority community in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The origins of the Kalashas still remains something of a mystery. Some believe these fair skinned, often blue-eyed people are the descendents of Alexander the Great, whose armies swept across this region centuries ago. On the other hand, many historians believe they are an indigenous tribe of the neighbouring region of Nuristan also called Kafiristan (the land of Kafirs), an area in modern-day Afghanistan.

In this, an otherwise predominately Muslim part of the world, I was amazed to find that the Kalash people do not bury their dead but leave the coffins uncovered in the open. Corpses are often then devoured by carrion birds and other creatures. The Kalash believe the soul is excited at the prospect of leaving the human body and reuniting with the already departed souls. For this reason they celebrate at the funeral by singing and dancing rather than mourning.

By total contrast, back in 2004 while covering the rebellion that ousted the president of the Caribbean island of Haiti, I had my first brush with those who believe in voodoo and the existence of "un corps cadavre," the army of the undead or, as we more commonly know them, zombies.

There, death is something to fear and resurrection is a terrifying prospect. n

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