By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
When Liz Nabaale gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, happiness filled the home she shared with Henry Sserubiri in Nakinyuguzi village in Makindye, on the outskirts of Kampala city. The boy, whom the couple named Isaac Kyanakyayesu, was their fourth child.
But Kyanakyayesu did not live to celebrate his first birthday. Six months after his birth, he was killed by his father.
Nabaale’s voice quivers at the mention of her husband’s name. “I wanted my son to become an engineer,” she says amid sobs. “I cannot believe that the man I was living with, the father of my children, was the devil.”
Returning home from the market one afternoon last October, Nabaale found the headless body of her baby in a polythene bag. Overwhelmed, she collapsed. Police later said that 30-year-old Sserubiri beheaded his son in a witchcraft-inspired ritual. Later examination, however, revealed that Sserubiri was a regular user of narcotics and had once been admitted to a mental health hospital.
Similarly gruesome stories of people, especially children, being killed by parents, friends, and strangers in horrific ritual practices have become common in the news in the last four months.
Recent police reports put a staggering figure of 100 children missing in Uganda in November 2008 alone. Many are feared murdered. Eighty of the cases were reported in Kampala alone.
“We are yet to find out the reason behind the missing children,” says Fred Enanga, police CID spokesman, “but ritualistic killing of children is murder, and anyone involved in this act will face murder charges.”
Enanga says that while children may go missing for a number of reasons – human trafficking, family break-ups, child torture by stepmothers, child labour – police suspect that ritualistic child sacrifice tops the list.
At least 25 ritual murders involving children were confirmed in Uganda in 2006. In the same year, there were 230 cases of child abduction. The cases dropped to 108 in 2007, but then increased to 318 in 2008. So far in 2009, 18 cases of child sacrifice have been recorded, 15 of which have been investigated.
Police are increasingly focusing their energies on ritual murders. Most recently, on February 9, Musa Bogere, a witchdoctor, was arrested after human body parts were found floating in a pit-latrine next to his shrine.
After being beaten by enraged residents, Bogere, a resident of Kisenyi Zone in Kampala’s Bwaise suburb, led the police to a swamp where other decomposing body parts, of a woman wrapped in a white sack, had been dumped.
Bogere died in police custody, but, after first confessing to having killed the woman, whose identity is not yet known. He reportedly said he cut off some of her body parts and sold them for Shs100, 000.
This is not the first time Bogere has been linked to horrific crimes. Last August, the witchdoctor and one of his colleagues were arrested for slaughtering a dog and selling its flesh as goat meat. How they got out of jail remains a mystery.
What drives the killings?
It is clear that the stories of Bogere and Sseribiri represent just the tip of the silent morgue of ritual murders in Uganda. What is less clear is how a father, friend or even a stranger could brutally butcher a baby, or any other human being.
City tycoon Godfrey Kato Kajubi is alleged to have ordered the murder of 12-year-old Joseph Kasirye last year in order to bury the child’s body parts underneath a large house he was constructing.
But some analysts believe that more often, poverty, weak legislation and negligent parenting are to blame for the rise in child sacrifice in Uganda.
Negligent parents leave their children with uncouth friends, relatives or even strangers, who in turn connive with witches to kill the children for money. This was, for instance, the reason cited in the murder of 5-year-old Shammim, daughter of Jalia Katusiime, a hairdresser in Njeru town, Mukono District. Katusiime had left her daughter in the care of Francis Muwanga, a neighbour, so that she could attend to a customer. When she returned, both Muwanga and her daughter were missing. Shammim’s decomposing body was later found with two fingers cut off and her tongue plucked out. Her genitals were also missing.
“With biting poverty, one is sometimes willing to do anything, including sacrifice, to exorcise the perceived curses,” said Timothy Opobo, a programme coordinator at the Africa Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) Uganda Chapter.
Opobo could be right. Shs 50,000 was enough to tempt Patrick Makonzi to chop the head off his 12-year-old nephew, Eriya Kalule, of Namusita village in Kamuli District on Boxing Day. That same month, a boda-boda cyclist in Masajja, Wakiso district, beheaded his twin children for Shs12 million. In another bizarre case, Ssenoga Setubwa, 21, stole a child from Bwaise and sold him for Shs100,000. On January 7, she confessed her offence to a judge and was jailed for 16 years.
Dr Nsaba Buturo, the minister for ethics and integrity, blames the murders on witchcraft. He says the “witchdoctors” prey on people’s fear and greed for riches.
In the Setubwa case, while passing judgment before a packed courtroom, Justice Eridad Mwanguhya declared: “The accused has pleaded guilty to the offence of stealing a child with intent to murder. She is accordingly convicted… but the offence of child sacrifice has been rampant of recent and it was by the mercy of God that a two-year-old innocent child was not killed by the evil desire of a so-called witchdoctor”.
Uganda’s 1957 Witchcraft Act prohibits acts of witchcraft that involve threatening others with death. Convictions lead to prison sentences of up to five years. Yet the law has rarely been enforced, reducing fear of punishment among witchdoctors engaging in child-trafficking and ritual murders.
Another factor that may lie behind the rise in ritual child murders is the increasing number of witchdoctors who choose to practice their craft under the guise of traditional herbal healing, a practice that is not properly regulated.
“For a long time, sacrificing has been done in secrecy. Child sacrifice centres on witchcraft,” says Timothy Opobo. “Today, sacrificing children appears to be exposed because traditional healers and herbalists are everywhere. So witchdoctors have taken advantage of the traditional herbalists by hiding under that umbrella and have advertised in the media.”
Opobo told The Independent that “sacrificing by witchdoctors is done for wealth acquisition and to out-compete rivals. Children are vulnerable and are believed to be pure – this is why they are being sacrificed”. Police say children are more likely to be victims of ritual sacrifice than adults, because they are more easily lured.
Although most cases of child sacrifice have been reported in Uganda’s central region, where the culture of ritual killing is strong, according to Opobo, other areas, like Lango in the north, are also reporting cases of missing children later found killed in a manner believed to be ritualistic.
Burhan Ssebayigga of Makerere University’s department of religious studies said traditional beliefs, which are strong in Buganda, could be behind the current wave of ritualistic child murders.
“In traditional Buganda, there is a strong belief that a mutilated body ceases to be spiritually powerful. So to sacrifice one needs something innocent or pure. And children are considered spiritually clean and virgin, a fact that makes them a soft target for witchdoctors’ ritualistic practices,” he said.
Fred Enanga, the police spokesman, says ritual murderers “have a belief that in human sacrifice they are appeasing and worshipping the gods or ancestral spirits, so that their wealth is sustained and their problems go away.”
He said the police have recruited intelligence within traditional healers to tip police off about people involved in ritualistic murder of children. Investigations reveal that witchdoctors do not do the killing themselves, but play on the psychology of their clients to do the actual killing and bring them the desired human body parts.
Like the woman who fell victim to Musa Bogere, the witchdoctor who had been arrested just six months earlier for illicitly selling dog meat, many innocent people, especially children, are in constant danger of losing their lives in these ritualistic murders. Policymakers must clamp down strongly on this evil practice.
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