Clouds of smoke signal another day and another body

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As survivors continue to be hauled miraculously from the ruins after Gujarat's catastrophic earthquake, thousands of decomposing bodies remain buried. And as relief teams struggle with disposing them, , fears of an epidemic of typhoid or cholera are rising rapidly.

As survivors continue to be hauled miraculously from the ruins after Gujarat's catastrophic earthquake, thousands of decomposing bodies remain buried. And as relief teams struggle with disposing them, , fears of an epidemic of typhoid or cholera are rising rapidly.

Up to 30,000 people have died since the quake struck nine days ago. A plane arrived in Bombay early yesterday carrying 36 tons of relief material donated by Hindu temples in Britain.

Clouds of black smoke rose over the annihilated town of Bachau, 80 kms east of Bhuj, yesterday morning as another salvaged corpse was burned in situ under stacks of firewood. Nearby Dr Nilkumar Joshi, a urologist from Maharashtra, told us how the 17-year-old lying on a cot a few feet away, was brought out alive at 8.30 on Wednesday night from the remains of a shopping complex. But the main thing on his mind was the danger to those left alive here of an epidemic.

In the ruins of Bhachau's bazaar close to Dr Joshi's field hospital, the drive to drag out and burn the corpses before another disaster occurs has become urgent.

A gang of workers has just arrived, also from Maharashtra state, dressed in a uniform of white smocks and green face masks. Their speciality is removing and disposing of unclaimed corpses.But they can't set to work until the bodies have been located and removed, and that task is painfully slow.

The vile and unmistakable stench of decomposing human remains draped over Bachau's bazaar like a miasma. Major V. Patni, whose entire regiment, the 111 Engineers from Punjab is here, took me behind the street of collapsed shops - a fairway has now been cleared through the rubble - to a block of flats a few steps away to see the conditions his men are struggling with.

In this building the quake telescoped the three upper floors into the ground floor, so the ceiling and the floor of the ground floor flat are now only about three feet apart. "Six people died here altogether," said Major Patni.

It is not feasible to simply bulldoze and burn everything: to eliminate the risk of epidemic each body must be found. And there is the human factor, too. "There is a sentiment attached to finding the bodies of relatives," Major Patni pointed out.

Everyday life of a sort has begun to return to Bhuj, the capital of the Kutch region where the earthquake hit hardest. Unlike Bhachau, the devastation in Bhuj is relieved here and there by patches of apparent normality. A couple of barbers have reoccupied their shops. Roadside stalls have appeared selling fruit. The town's best hotel has started admitting journalists. News-papers are on sale, mobile phones work, a few places in town have electricity now.

But relief agencies and the military have no illusions about the scale of the task ahead of them.

Patrick Fuller, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross, said: "We need to assess needs and target relief where it is needed. We've got four months' work ahead of us."

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