Imo State has been a theatre of war with corpses overrunning the Federal Medical Centre mortuary in Owerri. Some of the corpses are alleged to be victims of extrajudicial killings or those caught in crossfire between security forces and the unknown gunmen. TESSY IGOMU writes that reports on the number of human remains crammed into the morgue underscores the actual reality on ground
Like mummified Egyptian corpses waiting to be entombed, they stretched as far as the eyes could see inside the Federal Medical Centre mortuary in Owerri, Imo State.
The pungent smell of formalin and other toxic chemicals used for embalmment was choking and irritated the eye and skin.
The corpses, which occupied three rooms, set aside for the remains of majorly young men, PUNCH Investigations gathered, have been lying at the morgue of the federal health facility for quite some time.
Our correspondent learnt that while a sprinkle of the corpses were brought by their loved ones, having died of natural causes, a higher number of them are alleged victims of extrajudicial killings, dumped by security officials at the peak of the crises that rocked the state.
Most of the dead bodies had gaping wounds, which the mortuary attendants managed to stitch with unskilled craftsmanship.
Gruesomely and untimely dispatched to their early graves, and denied the solemn rites of burial, their remains have yet to find a final resting place as they remain unknown and unclaimed.
For years, local rights groups and international watchdogs have accused Nigerian forces of carrying out extrajudicial killings.
While bodies of few victims are later located in mortuaries without any attached identity or an iota of explanation as to how they got there, some disappear forever without a trace.
When news filtered out that a large number of corpses littered the FMC mortuary, the Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri, Most Reverend Anthony Obinna, visited the facility and was taken aback by what he saw.
Decrying the development, the prelate said, “On Thursday, June 3, 2021, I visited the Owerri Federal Medical Centre mortuary. As I painfully surveyed the 35 corpses, stark naked on the bare floor, stealthily dumped there within the last few days, victims of runaway killers, military, police and unknown gunmen, with no identification on them, I thought of many others, who have been kidnapped, taken to unknown locations, killed and even butchered, as we continue to hear. Imo is bleeding.”
The prelate also confirmed his discovery and consternation to our correspondent in a telephone chat.
PUNCH Investigations on a discreet visit to the FMC morgue discovered that the facility was overstretched and overflowing with corpses, with some at various stages of decomposition, despite embalmment.
The sight was beyond disbelief and nothing prepared our correspondent for the sea of human remains cramped in an undignified manner into this poorly kept federal mortuary.
Mission almost impossible
Gaining entrance into the FMC mortuary was a herculean task.
During the first attempt, our correspondent posed as a relative to a family of an alleged victim of extrajudicial killing.
After exchanging pleasantries with the mortuary attendants and a very friendly Chief Mortician, later identified as Ejike Opara, the father of the deceased sought for permission to check on his loved one in the storage chamber.
He was granted permission, but when Opara learnt that our correspondent would accompany him into the storage area, his demeanour changed automatically.
Though the chief mortician was unaware of our correspondent’s identity, he was definite in his response, and refused to budge despite attempts to use emotional overtures.
“You are a woman. I don’t think you will like to go in there,” he insisted defiantly.
After an attempt to wave the feminine stick by our correspondent failed, the chief mortician explained that the place was saturated with corpses adding, ‘the place is not in a good state for you to go into. It is congested.’
Luckily, on a third visit, our correspondent was able to gain access into the morgue. What she witnessed was a shocking, traumatising sight.
From the overflow outside, to the verandas and inside the three massive cooling chambers, the grotesque forms of corpses took up every available space, leaving no room for easy manoeuvring.
Unclad, some of the embalmed bodies stood shoulder to shoulder, while others were either piled in threes or more on the tiled floor, or heaped on improvised wooden platforms.
In the three rooms, limbs were flung around torsos, heads rolled into groins and faces peered out from underneath stiffened legs.
Sadly, a cloak of uncertainty hangs on the true identity of the corpses.
With the cooling chambers overrun by corpses, the two storage rooms and verandas were saturated with the stench of rotting human cadavers.
The humidity inside was stifling and our correspondent was almost asphyxiated after staying inside for about two minutes. Overwhelmed by the sight and nauseous smell, and faced with the possibility of losing consciousness, our correspondent made a quick dash for the exit point out of the poorly illuminated morgue.
Dumped by security forces
Our correspondent reliably gathered that at the peak of the armed crises in the state, soldiers and the police allegedly brought and dumped corpses at the FMC mortuary.
Speaking with PUNCH Investigations, one of the attendants (name withheld) said most families did not know that the corpses of their loved ones were deposited at the morgue. The source revealed that those who were aware had refused to show up for fear of being whisked away by security agencies.
The source alleged that the army, especially, had been keeping tabs on some of the corpses, especially those tagged Indigenous People of Biafra and Eastern Security Network, to know those who would come to claim them.
It was reliably gathered that after the alleged extrajudicial killings that took place on May 28, 2021, at Naze Junction, in the Owerri North Local Government Area, several corpses from the scene were dumped at the FMC mortuary, including that of 21-year-old Samuel, who was allegedly killed in the presence of his mother.
In a picture made available to PUNCH Investigations, where the bleeding corpse of the 300-level student of the Imo State University was seen lying naked on the mortuary floor, other corpses with wounds were also captured.
While documenting claims of judicial killings by security forces in an earlier report, PUNCH Investigations detailed how Noel Chigbu, a businessman, was allegedly shot by soldiers for violating a checkpoint rule at the Amakohia flyover area in Owerri, and his body later dumped at the FMC mortuary.
The soldiers, PUNCH Investigations reliably gathered, were deployed to the area from the 34 Artillery Brigade in Obinze.
According to Noel’s elder brother, Tobechi, “I went to the mortuary and requested to see his corpse. The mortuary attendant demanded for a tally to identify his remains, but after explaining that he was brought by soldiers, he apologised and said they (soldiers) kept bringing bodies and dumping them at the morgue.”
Tobechi was able to identify one of the soldiers that allegedly shot his brother. Despite that, he is still in search of justice.
In a special report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, signed by Emeka Umeagbalasi, Chinwe Umeche and Chidimma Udegbunam, the rights group claimed to be in possession of graphic details of how security forces deployed to the East, to quell purported insurrection, abducted innocent citizens and allegedly killed them.
The report read in parts, “These have led to not less than 170 open killings, secret abduction and permanent disappearance or feared unlawful execution in custody of no fewer than 550 and general arrest/abduction of not less than 2,100 (people).
“Shockingly, from Monday 24th to Sunday 30th May 2021, not less than 30 open and secret killings by soldiers and police have taken place with most taking place in Imo State, where scores of corpses have been freshly traced to the mortuaries of the government medical centres.
“The slain are all victims of extra-judicial killings including innocent citizens ‘killed after the act’ at crime scenes and falsely labelled for gallantry. The findings above cover the first five months of 2021 or January to May 2021.”
“Intersociety investigated and found as follows: That: soldiers, police and other security operatives have since January 2021 openly shot and killed over 170 persons in the two regions. Out of the number, at least 145 are innocent citizens or victims of extrajudicial killings while 25 others are combatively involved.’’
An implosion in waiting
For this federal health institution that houses world class facilities, which include a Renal Dialysis and MRI centre, the deplorable state of its morgue leaves a sore taste in the mouth.
Bordered by a dizzying gorge, the FMC mortuary is algae-infested and surrounded by overgrown grasses.
The reception area with a dirt stained wall was sparsely furnished with old metal chairs, blue plastic chairs and an old brown counter.
No storage area was provided for the chemicals used for embalmment, as they occupied a section of the reception.
Aside from the sordid state of the environment, what appears to be a looming epidemic that might pose health hazards to patients, visitors and workers are the corpses in various stages of decomposition.
During our correspondent’s last visit to the morgue, the mortuary attendant was seen attending to and moving corpses around without any form of safety protective gears – nose mask, overall or gloves.
According to the International Society for Infectious Disease, human cadavers may pose hazards to those handling them.
It revealed that recently dead bodies may have been infected by a wide range of pathogens, and that those presenting particular risks include tuberculosis, streptococcal infection and gastro-intestinal pathogens.
“Most of the microorganisms that cause death do not survive for long after the host dies or are not readily transmissible in that context. Soft tissues remaining on a human cadaver could present an infection risk,” the organisation stated.
ISID advised that in general, good practice and the use of appropriate protective clothing will greatly reduce the risk of acquiring infection.
“But some additional precautions may be advisable for particular infections, for example, when dealing with infectious agents transmitted by a vector that is resident on the deceased (e.g. body lice and typhus, fleas, and plague), as these will leave the deceased and may move onto those handling the cadaver, putting them at risk,” it warned.
Improperly preserved corpse poses danger – pathologist
In 2019, about 50 corpses, some of them abandoned, were burnt to ashes in a fire outbreak at the Enugwu-Ukwu General Hospital Mortuary, in the Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State.
Before the incident, the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, reported that its mortuary was filled with corpses abandoned by their owners.
The report revealed that some of the bodies had been abandoned for two to three years.
With corpse abandonment and overflowing morgues identified as the norm in the South-East, many have questioned the legality of not burying corpses already pronounced clinically dead.
A consultant pathologist at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Dr Francis Faduyile, warned that corpses could pose potential danger to those around, and that the duration of time a body could be kept in the morgue depended on how well it had been preserved
The former president of the Nigerian Medical Association, however, advised that the dead be buried immediately.
“Before now, dead people were buried immediately but due to civilisation, bodies are now being kept for different lengths of time. It depends on how well it has been preserved. We have some bodies that have been kept for years, so it doesn’t make it wrong.
“But for anybody to be kept for that length of time, we should be able to keep the body in a good state. This is because we want to guide against infection. Many people might have died due to infection or have infections, which can be contagious, especially those that can be spread through aerosol – air.
“Again, if they are decomposing, you will certainly see vectors or insects that will perch on those bodies to aid decomposition. And with time, those insects will move from that vicinity to other places, and can also disseminate any diseases arising from the body.
Continuing, the pathologist said, “From decomposition, there are some gases that are released, which are foul smelling and pungent, and they will be released into the atmosphere around. Some of them can contain some particulate organisms that can settle around them.
“If bodies are opened outside, during the process of decomposition, some of the micro organisms can interact with others, making those that are not virulent to be virulent.
“For instance, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of tuberculosis, can stay in the body for up to 100 years. And if you move that body, the aerosol or air can carry the bacteria and infect another person.
Seeing bodies that are decomposing has a psychological effect on humans. These are things we should guide against.”
Awaiting approval for mass burial
During the first visit to FMC morgue, the chief mortician, Opara, revealed that he intended to apply for permission from the hospital management to carry out mass burial, so as to create space for fresh corpses.
When our correspondent returned to Lagos and called his mobile phone number to inquire if an approval had been granted for the mass burial, he said no.
Opara, however, became jittery and wanted to know how our correspondent got his mobile number. He refused to comment further and disconnected the call.
The Chief Medical Director, FMC, Owerri, Kingsley Achigbu Ihedioha, denied being aware that the mortuary was bursting at the seams with corpses.
Ihedioha said he was in a meeting and would not like to discuss the matter on the phone. He refused to comment further and disconnected the call.
“I am sure you have a reporter in Owerri, let him come. I will rather have you on ground, so that I can understand what you are saying. What you are saying is actually strange to me,” Ihedioha added.
The Chief Pathologist, Ikechukwu Nweke, who later got back to our correspondent, confirmed that the morgue was overstretched.
He also said most of the corpses have no name or any form of identification, but that the management was still hopeful that their families will come to claim them.
He said, “The truth of the matter is, you know what is happening in Owerri. Most of them are bodies of those killed by unknown gunmen and some are unknown gunmen that were brought here. Once law enforcement agents get these bodies, they just bring them to FMC.
“This is the only tertiary institution that receives bodies from all over Imo State. It was not designed for that. Due to the state of Imo State, we can’t reject any corpse. Once a security personnel brings a body, we accept it.
“What we do here, is that we give some time frame for their owners to and claim them. If they don’t come, we will carry out mass burial. We have been carrying out mass burials at our own expense, but we must give a window for the owners to come forward.
“You will be surprised that some of those bodies in the morgue, the owners are still looking for them. Once the period elapses, we will advertise in the newspapers, get court injunction and then conduct mass burial.
When asked how soon the mass burial will be carried out, Nweke said, “We will still give three months window and then start the process. As we speak, bodies are constantly being brought into the mortuary.
“It is an ongoing process, which will continue until peace prevails. Insecurity can degenerate tomorrow and we will have 40 bodies brought in at the same time. We can’t run and bury all of them. If I see that some bodies have overstayed, I will apply to the management and the local government will give us a site for mass burial.”
No complicity by security forces – Police, Army
Meanwhile, the Director, Defence Information, Major General Benjamin Sawyerr and the Imo State Commissioner of Police, Abutu Yaro, have denied any complicity in the claims.
They insisted that the security forces never engaged in human rights abuses or extrajudicial killings.