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It feels like a basic right. Everywhere in the world, when someone dies, the family receives the body for a burial, a cremation, a laying to rest. But for some families during this pandemic, those final rituals have been yet another casualty of COVID-19. In the Peruvian Amazon, COVID hit so hard and fast last year that hundreds of bodies were secretly buried in a mass grave. For months now, family members of the deceased have been fighting to get their loved ones exhumed. NPR's Jason Beaubien has this story from the Peruvian city of Iquitos.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: When Teresa Pizango's relatives went to the hospital to try to claim her body, they were met with chaos. It was late April of 2020. The hospital was overflowing with COVID patients. The facility was on the verge of collapse. At the hospital's morgue, the dead were piling up in the hallways. The staff was running out of body bags. Teresa's daughter, Karina Ahuanari Pizango, says no one could tell them where their mother's corpse was.
KARINA AHUANARI PIZANGO: (Through interpreter) We had nowhere to turn to to get the answer to where is my mom?
BEAUBIEN: At first, Karina's mom was listed as having been cremated. Then officials announced that, no, cremations had been suspended. Teresa's name later showed up on a list of the buried, but it wasn't clear where she was buried. For weeks, the family had no idea what had happened to their mother's body.
AHUANARI PIZANGO: (Through interpreter) That went on the entire month of May. Then in June, we found out through the press and social media that the bodies had been dumped.
BEAUBIEN: Eventually, officials were forced to acknowledge that 66-year-old Teresa Ahuanari de Pizango, along with hundreds of other people, was buried in a secret mass grave south of Iquitos. The grave site is down a deeply rutted red dirt track that looks like a timber road. It's impossible to drive over it in a car or even in a pickup truck. As Karina and her siblings go out to visit the spot, they walk the last quarter mile. It's as if they're wandering into the forest. Then they turn right into a clearing.
AHUANARI PIZANGO: (Through interpreter) This whole area was wide open. There wasn't a single cross - only some small, little blue flags, but not a single cross.
BEAUBIEN: Karina is wearing a facemask and a baseball cap to block the bright sun. She's standing next to a cross the family has erected at the spot they've been told is their mother's grave. There are now dozens of small shrines and crosses blooming in the sticky red soil. The local government has officially declared this site the COVID-19 cemetery. They also issued a map of the clearing.
According to the diagram, each hole contains three black plastic body bags stacked on top of each other. Karina's mom, Teresa, is supposedly sandwiched on the second level of her grave, with a body above and below her. Karina and her siblings are desperate to exhume their mom, but they don't have the money for lawyers or know how to navigate the system to make that happen. However, Karina tears up, but she says they won't rest until their mom has been properly buried in a proper cemetery.
AHUANARI PIZANGO: (Through interpreter) This is what we want - that officials help us get my mom into a place that's dignified, that she deserves. We want the same thing that all relatives want for their family.
BEAUBIEN: Officials say they never intended to dump bodies in a secret graveyard, but they had no choice. Elvis Ricardo Sandoval Zamora is with the provisional health department. He says last year, during that deadly first wave of COVID in Peru, they were simply overwhelmed with corpses.
ELVIS RICARDO SANDOVAL ZAMORA: (Through interpreter) The cadavers were accumulating, and the hospital had to make the decision to send out the dead. We didn't really see names. We were just seeing the numbers of bodies that were there.
BEAUBIEN: Sandoval is sympathetic to the families who now want to move their loved ones, but he says exhuming the bodies would be expensive and, on top of that, illegal.
ZAMORA: (Through interpreter) The law says that after a year and one day, you can't exhume the bodies.
BEAUBIEN: And the majority of the more than 400 people buried at the COVID cemetery were put there more than a year ago.
On a recent Sunday morning, young women sell bouquets of flowers and empanadas at the wrought iron gates in front of the San Juan Bautista cemetery. Families still in their church clothes are gathered at many of the graves. Small umbrellas protect many of the tombstones from the tropical sun. This is where Karina Ahuanari and her siblings are hoping to bring their mother's remains.
AHUANARI PIZANGO: (Through interpreter) We didn't get a vigil for my mom when she died. We didn't get to bury her. We were just told, your mom is buried over there. That's all we know.
BEAUBIEN: Karina and her siblings feel like they're trapped in a bureaucratic hell. Some other families allegedly have gotten so frustrated that they're digging up bodies and simply taking them. More than a year and a half after 66-year-old Teresa Ahuanari died of COVID, her children would just like to bury her in a normal grave, one they can visit on Sundays like so many other families in Peru.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Iquitos.
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