DOJ on Haiyan burials: Accuracy over speed
'We don't want to be turning over the wrong dead bodies to certain families,' says Justice Secretary Leila De Lima

MISSION TO BURY. Hundred more bodies are left unburied almost 2 months after Yolanda. File photo by Jake Verzosa

MANILA, Philippines – “Speed should not prevail over accuracy,” said Justice Secretary Leila De Lima about the ongoing burial of corpses in areas battered by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

It is the need for accuracy, among other things, that has delayed burial of the rapidly decomposing bodies.

“The corpses were not buried right away because they were still being processed. Processing is time-consuming,” she explained, almost two* months after Yolanda devastated the Eastern Visayas. Processing, she added, is necessary to identify those left dead by the storm. 

“We don’t want to be turning over the wrong dead bodies to certain families,” she emphasized.

The explanation came after the media reported 1,400 bodies left lying on a muddy open field in San Isidro, a farming village on the outskirts of hard-hit Tacloban City. There were also reports of unburied bodies in other devastated areas 7 weeks after the disaster. (READ: After Haiyan: No man left behind)

She quelled fears that the government was taking its time in burying the bodies, while citizens took it upon themselves to bury loved ones and complete strangers.

“We are on double time to bury bodies, both processed and unprocessed,” the DOJ chief said.

To remedy the slow-going operation, local governments and national agencies agreed to temporarily bury the bodies. They will then be exhumed later on for processing by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), said De Lima.

Uncooperative weather

Rainshowers that drenched the Eastern Visayas the past few weeks was another major cause of delay.

“There were factors like rainy days in succession. It’s difficult to work in a rainy environment. It’s one of the causes for the delay in burials,” she explained.

Contrary to media reports, the NBI did not stop rehabilitation operations during the holiday break, De Lima clarified. A skeletal force left in Tacloban continued processing of the bodies.

“Before holiday break, there were more than 400 processed bodies which were not yet buried. During the break, they were buried,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.

More help on the way

After an initial rift between the national and local governments that also hampered relief and rehabilitation efforts, De Lima said the two are coordinating closely with one another for burial operations.

More teams of forensic doctors and chemists who can help in the processing of dead bodies are on their way to Tacloban. Three teams were sent there on January 2 and more will be deployed, she said.

Such scientists are needed to identify bodies in an advanced state of decomposition. With their facial features marred by decomposition, only scientific analysis of their DNA can unlock their identities.

Rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson said the burial, which started on Thursday, January 2, is expected to be completed on Tuesday, January 7, if the weather cooperates. He said that Health Undersecretary Janette Garin is in Barangay (village) Suhi in Tacloban to personally supervise operations.

The Department of Public Works and Highways sent additional equipment such as backhoes and payloaders, to speed up the mass burial. By Saturday, January 4, the team is targeting the processing and burial of 300 bodies. – Pia Ranada/

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said “3 months after Yolanda devastated the Eastern Visayas.” This has been corrected.

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