Unidentified Corpses On The Streets Of Pakistan’s Biggest City

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In an abandoned building on the outskirts of Karachi, a man dies, anonymous and alone. He does not have a phone or any paperwork on his person, nothing at all to indicate his name or address. A passer-by spots this body, slumped lifeless against a wall, and immediately knows who to call: the Edhi Foundation. Within minutes, the organisation dispatches an ambulance to collect the corpse, and the work of trying to find out who this anonymous man is can begin.

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This man’s lonely death and the mystery he leaves behind is sadly unremarkable. Each year, approximately 3000 unidentified corpses are found on the streets of Karachi, an ever-expanding mega-city in southern Pakistan. Sometimes they are drug addicts or migrant workers who came to the big city in search of a better life; sometimes they are the victims of the sectarian clashes or gang violence that give Karachi its reputation for violence. In this tightly packed city of over 21 million people, some get lost amongst the heaving mass of brick and bodies, ending up destitute and alone. They are lawaris: without an owner.

After his collection by the ambulance, the anonymous man is taken to the Edhi mortuary, one of only two functional cold storage units in the whole city. The staff here are constantly exposed to death, dealing with the victims of bomb attacks and gunfire, as well as stepping in to bear the financial burden of burial for families who are too poor to afford it. At the mortuary, the anonymous man is absorbed into a system that is set up to try to find his loved ones and, even if they cannot be tracked down, to restore him some dignity in death. The Edhi mortuary employees take fingerprints, search the national biometric database, and make phone calls - all the while dealing with a steady flow of people coming into the mortuary to search for their lost loved ones. Sometimes lawaris bodies are reunited with their families, a raw emotional collision of grief and relief. If loved ones are not tracked down, Edhi staff take on the role of family, washing the body and giving full Islamic burial rites at a funeral attended by staff members.

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