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It May Take Months To Identify Cyclone Victims, Forensic Coordinator Says

CARA ANNA: (Reading) He was haunted by the thought of a small child's skull, unburied and lost in the debris of a cyclone that had claimed hundreds of lives. Stephen Fonseca stood in a field of ruined maize where a tiny spine had been found, and he wanted to find the rest of the body. But in every direction were scattered kernels and stalks bleached by the sun. At a glance, much of the landscape looked like bones.


That is the voice there of Associated Press reporter Cara Anna reading from her latest story. She's been following one man who has been helping survivors in Mozambique cope with death after a cyclone that was the worst storm ever to hit southern Africa. The death toll in Mozambique alone is estimated to be more than 600 and climbing. I asked Cara how she came across Stephen Fonseca with the Red Cross.

ANNA: I first came across him in one of the statements that aid organizations were making shortly after the cyclone hit. Everybody was trying to get a handle on how bad the damage was, how many people were affected, how many people were lost. And I'm sure the International Committee of the Red Cross had a statement mentioning they had a forensic investigator on the ground. And that piqued my interest. It wasn't something I immediately got to. But on the second trip back to Mozambique, we caught up with him and managed to follow him for a couple of days.

GREENE: Just the image you paint of him hoping that he can find a small child's skull - I mean, can you just tell me exactly what his job is and what his mission is?

ANNA: He's based in South Africa. He is the forensic coordinator for the African continent with the International Committee of the Red Cross. And in Mozambique, he was the only forensically trained body recovery specialist searching rural Mozambique after the cyclone hit.

GREENE: And how much time did you spend with him?

ANNA: We were there for a couple of days in rural Mozambique. We sort of followed him around. I was kind of amazed that he was a bit worried that he wasn't giving us enough material. He had described, you know, wading through thick muds - landscape where crocodiles, hippos, snakes could pose a threat. He described coming across bodies in trees, bodies found on islands.

But the fact that he was worried that we wouldn't find something sufficiently dramatic just amazed me because his work is so fascinating. And the challenge that he had taken on was just - appeared staggering to me. That he was standing in this maize field trying to find a skull of a child, it seemed like an impossible task. So I tried to describe that.

GREENE: I guess, I mean, we should say there's so many important jobs after a disaster like this, many of them focusing on people who are, fortunately, still living. Why does he find this work so, so very important?

ANNA: He thinks it's important to find closure. I think the term he used was ambiguous loss, the idea of families across that region never knowing what happened to relatives who were swept away. He wanted, as best as possible - along with, you know, the local communities that he came across - the common interest was finding closure, being able to tell people for certain what happened to their loved ones.

GREENE: Explain that, this kind of work, more if you can.

ANNA: Well, he - we followed him as he went into different communities, first of all, introducing himself and his work and distributing some of just the basic materials to help others who were already doing work in the field. I mean, these villagers, as he explained, were just as interested in dignified burials, even if the people were strangers, even if they had washed up from as far away as neighboring Zimbabwe.

So one of the first things he wanted to do was simply hand out tools to help them along, things like simple grave markers, gloves, masks, tags for bodies - just to help them out. And as he did his own work, of course, he - especially when he found the small shinbone of a child - he was careful to take measurements, to write down the information, to document what he had found, to handle it properly and, in the end, place it in a makeshift body bag and bury it with bones that he believed also belonged to the same child.

GREENE: You mentioned one, I mean, really disturbing thing, which was that there were not traditional body bags for children's remains. What would he do?

ANNA: He took a normal-size, I suppose, body bag - just so much incredibly larger than the tiny shin bone that he found - and essentially cut it into a more manageable size and put duct tape along the seams. And then he drove with a local chief to the grave where the vertebrae - where the tiny spine had already been buried. And so they stood there in the hot sun. And they dug it up. And, you know, quietly they placed the second small body bag in with it. The grave marker was already there. And it said, you know, in Portuguese - it was written in permanent ink - it said, don't touch, the body of a child.

GREENE: This is such a different type of story than we often see after a disaster. I mean, it's just the sheer numbers and the sheer amount of land in these three countries that was affected. I mean, you've decided to bring us just into one life and profile - one person doing one thing. Was that experience different for you journalistically?

ANNA: It was a different - oh, gosh. It was a different experience for sure. I've never followed anyone doing this kind of work. And I've had two reporting trips to Mozambique now. And a lot of the work has been focused on the many, many people trying to deliver aid to people still alive - you know, frantic - organized frantic chaos, you know, trying to help people survive. And this was a very different, quiet experience but just fascinating to see.

GREENE: Is there one image or one scene or one moment that stands out for you after following this man?

ANNA: I think it was just the one in the field. It just struck me as an immense task. And I wanted to bring that to life as much as possible immediately for people. And he said it himself as he stood and he looked around the field. And he said, this is literally like a needle in a haystack.

GREENE: Thank you so much for your reporting.

ANNA: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF FENNESZ SONG "OTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.