In Haiti, body hunters seek to unite the living with the dead

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In post-earthquake Haiti, theirs is perhaps the most important and grisliest of professions: body hunters for hire.

They dig through the rubble looking for corpses.

Some wear socks on their hands and rags over their faces as they tug decaying bodies from shattered buildings. Others wrap their fingers in plastic bags.

Seventeen days after a massive earthquake turned much of Port-au-Prince into rubble, most of the international rescue teams have packed up and gone home. Some 200,000 people are feared dead, and the stench of the city suggests many are still entombed beneath the concrete.

Emanuel Bruno, 19, lost his mother, father and his home to the quake. A few days later, with two siblings to support, he was hiring himself out for the equivalent of $3 a day to recover bodies.

What is unimaginable for most people has become commonplace for him.

He smokes to mask the stench. Asked if dealing with corpses disturbs him, he nods toward the red motorcycle gloves he's wearing.

"It's difficult work but I have these,'' he said, as if a few inches of leather make his job routine.

Unemployment in the hemisphere's poorest nation was already rampant before the earthquake, thought to be as high as 70 percent.

The Jan. 12 quake took with it even more jobs, as factories crumbled, the ports shut down and the economy sputtered.

While the United Nations and the U.S. government are promoting cash-for-work programs that have armies of men cleaning rubble off the street, there is no organized effort to recover bodies still buried in buildings, as has been the case at many other quakes.

``In Nicaragua, yellow flags were put up where they thought there were bodies,'' said Herb Duane, a Boston demolition expert who participated in the clean-up of Managua's 1972 earthquake. ``You pulled the building apart gently to respect and protect the bodies of those who had died.''

Jacques Lochard hired a recovery crew after the earthquake toppled the six-story house where he had lived with his extended family for more than 40 years.

``In one minute you lose the ones you love, everything you had and everything you worked so hard for,'' he said, as he sat in the shade across the street.

He, too, was trapped in the rubble for about 30 minutes, before two of his brothers freed him.

A few days after the earthquake, a team of Belgian, Spanish and Russian rescue workers told him there was no hope for his family. That same day, through a friend, he hired the group of 10 men to recover the bodies.

That first day they found a 5-year-old nephew and his friend, both alive.

Since then, there has only been bad news, Lochard said.

The group has recovered the bodies of his mother, his brother, two nephews and three nieces. The only family member missing is Giovani, his 4-year-old nephew.

Friday morning, the work crew said they spotted the shapes of a woman and a man through cracks in the concrete.

Lochard thinks the woman may be his secretary, Judith. She worked in his law office, which was attached to the home. He has no idea who the man is.

Behind the rubble, in what used to be the home's patio, Lochard points to a fresh mound of dirt where Giovani's mother is buried. When the boy's body is recovered, he will share her grave ``so they can be together,'' he said.

As the body hunters continued to chip away at the slabs of concrete and twisted metal, Lochard's voice broke as he talked about their work.

"We will always be grateful to them all our life,'' he said of the men. "They are brave people.''

When Giovani is found, Lochard will hold a ceremony for all of his dead relatives. He's confident that the searchers will help bring closure in a day or two.