grim wait for sad families

MOURNFUL relatives of the illegal miners who died underground at the Eiland mine shaft in Welkom gather every day in small groups under the trees at the local police station.

MOURNFUL relatives of the illegal miners who died underground at the Eiland mine shaft in Welkom gather every day in small groups under the trees at the local police station.

Grief and desperation is written on their faces. They move around slowly and from time to time talk on their cellphones with eyes fixed on the mortuary door. Some read newspapers for the latest news on the tragedy.

The families have been braving the cold for the past five days as they seek relatives who might have died from asphyxiation deep underground.

Now their patience is wearing thin with the bureaucratic delays. Day after day they are sent home and told to return the next day because the "bodies are not ready".

They are anxious for a resolution, but things are still not going their way. An official relays the news that they will have to wait until noon.

Some bodies have not yet arrived from the mortuary in Kokstad, to where they were transferred after the local mortuary could not handle the flood of dead miners, hauled to the surface every day since the tragedy was announced.

Relatives grumble that officials are still ill-prepared to deal with the disaster that has unfolded over the past week. The poverty-stricken families complain that they have wasted precious rands in returning to the police station day after day only to be told to come back later.

Others have had to walk long distances as they don't have money to board taxis. All they want is to enter the mortuary and identify their dead kin.

But more shock awaits those who are allowed inside.

The bodies they have been waiting to identify have decomposed so badly that many are unrecognisable, even worse, the skin has peeled off.

Others are swollen, blackened and so disfigured that it is impossible to identify them.

"I did not expect this. This is really bad. I have never seen such a thing," says Mzokhona Ngubane, who is searching for his nephew Myekeni.

He fears Myekeni might have joined the illegal miners after leaving home without saying where he was going.

Some relatives have been able to identify their loved ones by the clothes they were wearing, personal effects or notes with names stuffed in the body bags. They at least have closure.

"It is difficult to think what will happen to me and my three children since he is dead, but I am happy I found his body," says Nthabiseng Seboko.

Her boyfriend Motswaneng did not tell her he was working illegally at the disused mineshaft.

It is unclear who wrote down the names of the dead miners, but it is believed survivors are still scrabbling underground for the elusive gold ore.

But no one will say who takes these men deep down the earth. All you hear is that faceless syndicate bosses drive luxury cars and throw parties almost every week, while their minions collect their ill-gotten wealth below.

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