These are some of the stories I have been told when meeting the locals in Buikwe district, 45 kilometres east of the capital Kampala. Here, superstition and poverty have created a market where witch-doctors and their agents have become rich because of people’s beliefs that blood and body parts from children create wealth, cure disease and ward off evil spirits.
29 December 2013: Kato (9) is abducted and killed by an uncle. Five days later his body is found. They boy’s head, heart and fingers are removed.
4 January 2014: Moses (15) goes out to buy potatoes for his mother. Six days later his body is found, his head, genitals, heart, liver and intestines have been removed.
26 May 2014: Miriam (6) is out playing with the children next door. They are the last to see her alive. Three days later her body is found buried in a garden. Both her hands and legs have been cut off.
14 July 2014: It is mid-day, Jimmy Yinda (1,5 years) and his siblings are out playing in the afternoon sun. Suddenly Jimmy is gone. One brother calls the father, who is inside to greet some family friends. They start a search for Jimmy that lasts over a week. The boy has vanished without a trace, until some bloody, decapitated, chicken carcasses, and three cut off cow’s horn lead them to the shrine of a which-doctor. There they discover a machete covered in blood.
A couple of days later Jimmy’s nine-year old brother is out playing. Behind the house he finds the body of his little brother buried. The body is missing genitals and ears.
This practice, which is widespread throughout the country, kills hundreds of children each year. The first reported child sacrifice in Buikwe took place in 1998. Since then, child sacrifice has become more common. According to a report by the Ugandan Police, 729 children nationwide were registered abducted in 2013. The number is most likely higher. Today, on average one child a week is abducted and killed in Buikwe, the area known to be the child sacrifice district of the country.
I meet Obed Byamugisha (30) in Lugazi, in the heart of the Buikwe district. Supported by the international children’s charity World Vision, Byamugisha has travelled from village to village in the last two years, looking for ways, together with the local people, to stop child sacrifice. Over the next few days I travel with Byamugisha on his motorbike to meet the families of children that have been killed, surviving children and a witch-doctor who describes how the holy spirits inform how the children are to be killed.
Killers on the loose
We drive on muddy roads, through lush forest passageways and into villages with poor infrastructure, few schools, inadequate healthcare and lack of water, making an uncertain tomorrow. People’s lives here are highly influenced by superstition. Every third household have their own place of sacrifice, where traditional healers and witch-doctors promise good health and wealth to their customers.
In a small village, behind a house, between some trees, Jimmy Yinda lies buried. The grandmother, who looks well over 70, but in reality is merely 56, is lying on all fours on the grave of her grandchild who never reached the age of two before he was brutally murdered. The father, the uncle and the siblings who played with Jimmy on the day he vanished are out of words. They are still in shock over what happened and live in fear over losing more family members. After Jimmy’s murder, two people were arrested, but corrupt authorities and lack of evidence soon let them back in the village again.
‘The case went to trial, but the suspects never turned up. It later emerged that they had been released. The police had taken bribes from the killers’ families in return for evidence not being forwarded to the court’ says Jimmy’s father, Sangojimmy (28).
He breaks down in tears when he speaks about his son, and the thought of what the boy would have felt when he was killed is tearing him apart. All sacrificed children are cut alive. Kibigo Edward, one of the area’s many witch-doctors confirms this.
The spirits decide
It is difficult to see Edward’s house from the road. We have to go quite a way up on a small path and through the trees to find the gate that leads to his sacrificial site.
In a corner outside the house sits a shirtless man. He is one of Edward’s customers. In another corner, a chicken is taking its last breath. The entire garden around the house is filled with animal carcasses and blood, but Edward denies being, and having been a witch-doctor. He is what he calls a ‘traditional healer’, a person who can cure illness with the help of herbal medicines. Today his customer will be bathing in crushed herbs and blood from the chicken. The customer’s business is not going well, but after the bath this bad trend will turn, he hopes.
I ask Edward what he can do to help his customers.
“have many years of experience in this field and know exactly which herbs I will mix. Together with the blood from a chicken this will be a powerful mixture that will promise good years for his company,” he replies.
“Does the customer have to drink the potion?”
“It depends what they need help with. If they have problems with a business, they have to bathe. Are they mentally ill, have HIV, gonorrhoea or syphilis the potion has to be drunk.”
“Why do you use blood?”
“Blood is the food of the holy spirits. Blood entices them out of the body and it is only then that they can be used to help the customer.”
“But why the blood of a chicken?”
“The spirits say which animal has to be killed. It either has to be a goat, a chicken or a cow. The holy spirits decide everything. It was they who decided that I should become a traditional healer. I did not have a choice.”
“But isn’t it herbs that traditional healers use?”
“Yes, we use that too, but if the holy spirits say that blood is required to cure a specific disease or make someone rich, then we have to listen to them. You soon discover which effect the blood has. A customer who comes with pains soon gets better.”
“Are you saying it is easier to help people as a witch doctor if you have blood?”
“Yes, blood is very effective.”
Child sacrifice provides quick riches
Edward is adamant. If the holy spirits have said something, it has to be followed. I ask him what he thinks of child sacrifice.
“There are many who want to become rich quickly, and human blood is more effective than animal blood. It is also easier to get customers if you have human blood. Herbs are not as effective anymore, and many have stopped believing that herbs work.”
“Do you also believe that one needs human blood?”
“No, I do not do that kind of thing. I am only saying that some believe that human blood is forceful.”
“Can you explain how child sacrifices happen?”
“Yes, usually it is the witch-doctor or the agent who locates and abducts the child. Often, the child is taken into the forest, where the head is cut off and the body is drained of blood. Sometimes Calfoame, a diethyl ether, is used to render the child unconscious. The agent uses a machete to cut off the desired body parts, before the blood and the body parts are brought back to the witch-doctor.”
“Which body parts are cut off?”
“It varies, but tongue, head, girls’ breasts and boys’ genitalia are often cut off.”
Edward laughs out loud. I ask the reason why these body parts are chosen.
“The genitals, for instance, are the body part with the most power to lure the spirits out of the body. With the help of the power of the spirits you can then influence the customers’ future in different ways.”
“What happens with the blood and the body parts when the ritual is finished?”
“The customer brings them home. They have to be kept in the home for the best possible effect.”
“Don’t they rot?”
“Yes, then you have to find a new child.”
Edward laughs again. While at the same time, he looks uncomfortable. It is obvious that he knows all there is to know about how a child sacrifice is performed, but he emphasises several times that he has never performed them himself.
100,000 dollars for a child victim
Edwards’ laughter gives me the chills. I ask how much it costs to receive his help.
“It depends. To go to a traditional healer can be anything from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. It depends on what the customer needs help with. The starting price is around 5 dollars, but for complicated illnesses you need herbal medicines from the outside, and that’s when the costs add up.”
“How much does a visit to a witch-doctor cost?”
“It depends. A witch-doctor who performs child sacrifices can charge up to 100,000 dollars for a visit. The money is divided between him, the agent and sometimes the customer, if he or she is involved in the abduction.”
“The agent, who is that?”
“A man or a woman in need of quick cash. It is often the agent who performs the killing, and it is common that they live close to the victim.”
“Who is the typical customer?”
“It is a man or a woman who have financial problems and who seeks help to make ends meet. They can pay an unlimited amount of money to get help. The second most common customers are fishermen who have problems with business on Lake Victoria. Then there are the poor who want to get rich, women who want to get pregnant, those who are possessed by evil spirits and those with diseases.”
“Yes, but what about the poor. They don’t have the ability to pay that much?”
“The poor can pay with their own children.”
“What do you mean?”
“They are offered a sum of money in exchange for them killing their own child and bringing their body parts to the witch-doctor.”
“Why are children the most attractive? Are body parts from an adult not as effective?”
“No, the most important thing is that the body has not been drained of blood. A circumcised boy is not desired, and neither is a girl with pierced ears. They are unclean. It does happen that adults are killed, but this is rare. Children between the age of 1 and 18 are the most common.”
“Who tells the customers that the blood from children is the most effective?”
“They have learnt that from our neighbour, Tanzania. Child sacrifice has been practiced there for a long time. Now it is illegal, but albinos are still killed there.”
A dangerous job
Edward says that he now cooperates with Obed Byamugisha and World Vision. He is a so-called “change agent”, a person who was formerly a witch-doctor, but now works to apprehend those who conduct child sacrifices. In the last year, Edward has witness 12 killings in the area.
“It is a difficult and dangerous job. Witch-doctors and agents have a lot of money. They are powerful people and I have been threatened several times. Anybody who tries to take their livelihoods from them lives dangerously. A poor man will never win a battle for justice in Uganda. The ones who win here are the ones who have money, regardless if he kills children or not,” he says.
Edwards says he has apprehended several witch-doctors who are involved in human sacrifice.
“Several of the victims were killed by their own family member. Sometimes I question what is the point of apprehending them? If you do not have any evidence, they cannot be arrested. If you have evidence and they are arrested, there will soon be someone who pays to have them released. Evidence is often destroyed in exchange for money,” says Edward.
On the way back Byamugisha tells me that Edward himself has sacrificed children, but that the fear of being arrested stops him from telling the truth to strangers.
Byamugisha says that Edward and others who used to be witch-doctors are important allies in the battle to end child sacrifices.
“The challenge lies in that it is not easy to know who to trust. We are often threatened. Many meet us at the door with a knife. But we certainly need to involve the witch-doctors. They are the ones closest to the locals and they know the practice best. Without them, we have no chance of success,” says Byamugisha and gets back on his motorbike.
On the way back, he points between the trees. This is where the witch-doctors operate in hiding. Being a witch-doctor is illegal in Uganda, meaning many hide behind certificates that say they are traditional healers. Others move so they can maintain anonymity. This is why there are no accurate numbers of witch-doctors, but according to World Vision and other organisations there are several hundred in the Buikwe district alone.
Alarm system saving lives
The heavens open. We are right on the Equator, and the rains come suddenly here. We seek shelter in a house where a dusty speaker and a megaphone on the roof have become a lifeline for many children. In the house, which World Vision calls “Community Centre”, lives Nalubwama Cathy Nalongo and the family. A year ago, they had an alarm system installed, acting as a deterrent in the work against child sacrifice.
“We use the speakers every day to inform about everything to do with children’s rights. There are many here who have lost their children, so we encourage the parents to never let their children walk alone. If a child disappears, the rest of the village are soon informed. The system has helped us save many,” says Nalongo.
Since 2013, Byamugisha has cooperated with the locals to find out what can be done to stop child sacrifice. The result is this alarm system that was named “Amber Alert”. It consists of drums and megaphones, and has so far been installed in 36 villages. If a child vanishes, the witness contacts those responsible for the alarm in the nearest centre, and they then use the drums and the megaphone to inform of what has happened.
“Everyone knows what the sound of the drums mean. It has a special rhythm that indicates a child has disappeared. The information from the witness goes out on the megaphone and the locals work together to stop the kidnapper. The system has made the entire community work as a single entity,” says Byamugisha, and adds that meeting the local leaders and conducting workshops for locals are other important parts of the work.
Learning by listening
Okuia Charles has worked with community leaders for a number of years. Together with a team of 13 people he organises workshops with the aim to change people’s attitude to witch-doctors and child sacrifice. Charles has been responsible for establishing alarm committees in the villages. The committees are trained in how to identify kidnappers and how to act when an abduction takes place. Witch-doctors and agents are also invited to the meetings, which are held regularly throughout the district.
“We have to involve everybody. We ask the witch-doctors why they sacrifice children and try to understand and learn, so that we can prevent and change. We have learnt that the kidnappers are not only men. It is often easier for women to abduct a child, as we tend to think that women are not capable of doing such a thing. If we see a woman and a child together, we automatically assume it is a mother and child,” says Charles.
Although the “Amber Alert” and the preventative work have provided results, many challenges remain. In a society strongly influenced by superstition, it is difficult to make everyone work together. According to Charles, many hesitate to help and are scared of being threatened by witch-doctors and their collaborators.
“Virtually everyone here goes to a witch-doctor. It is an enormous challenge to make them understand that witchcraft cannot create wealth or cure diseases such as HIV. We have to do something about people’s mindset. And that is not done overnight,” says Charles.
Profiting from HIV patients
Hilda Namutebi works as an HIV / AIDS specialist for the organisation Africa Social Development and Health Initiative (ASDHI). She says the number of people with HIV has increased over the last few years.
“Superstition combined with vast distances and few health clinics mean the witch-doctors are profiting from those infected with HIV. They believe they are possessed by the devil or have evil spirits in their bodies,” says Namutebi.
She is concerned about the situation and believes the government has to provide better medical facilities.
According to figures from UNICEF, an average of 7,4% of the adult population in Uganda were infected with HIV in 2013. According to several organisations, amongst them ASDHI, the figure is much higher in the Buikwe district. Here the fishing communities are the most vulnerable. According to a report by the organisation Icelandic International Development Agency, closer to 34% of women and almost 29% of men are infected with HIV.
Seven years old and paralysed
In the Buikwe district, home to around 430,000 people, everyone knows someone affected by child sacrifice. Everyone I speak with have stories to tell. Most of them end in tragedy. Despite the long efforts of the aid organisations to stop child sacrifice, there are no signs that the killings will end.
Although most of the abducted children are killed, there are some that manage to escape alive. One of them is Robert Mukwaya (7), who is sitting in a wheelchair outside a rehabilitation centre when we meet him. He is smiling cautiously, but he is unable to walk or talk. Eight months ago, an unknown man came into the family’s home. He was after Robert. He was going to sell Robert’s blood, head and genitals for quick cash. A deep cut in the throat paralysed large parts of Robert’s body
“The killer had already started draining his blood when a neighbour happened to come for a visit and surprised the attacker. I was absolutely sure he was going to die,” says Yonina Nakyonyi, Robert’s grandmother.
The police are still looking for the man who tried to take the boy’s life, but since Robert is incapable of describing the event, there is little they can do. He, like most of those who sacrifice children, remains at large.
Blame each other
Obed Byamugisha is in daily contact with the police and follow up as many incidents as he can. At the police station in Lugazi we meet Criminal Inspector Fred Wewona. Byamugisha is here to follow up on the murder of little Jimmy Yinda. According to Jimmy’s father the police received money in order not to send the murder report to the courts, which led to the suspects being released. Police Inspector Fred denies that internal police corruption is the reason the suspects have not been punished.
“It is always easy to blame the police. We have absolutely nothing to do with this. I ask you: how is it possible to get a summons, without the report from us being sent to the courts? It is not us, but our colleagues in the courts, the district attorneys, who have lined their own pockets,” says Fred.
Wanting a new law
Despite the authorities establishing task forces who fight child sacrifice, enough has not been done. Byamugisha and World Vision recently formulated a demand for an amendment in the law. Today, it is not legal to hold and detain a suspect without witnesses and evidence for more than six months in Uganda. If the suspect is not convicted within this period, he is a free man. Corrupt authorities and government employees also means the suspects can easily buy their freedom.
“We are fighting the law. It is terrible that not more has been done when lives are being taken. The affected family receive no support today from the police or the authorities. They require both protection and legal assistance,” says Byamugisha.
“Another big problem is that the witch-doctors can hide behind healer certificates, which legitimise their practice,” he adds.
An endless battle
Jimmy Yinda’s father lives each day with the knowledge that those who took his son’s life are back in the neighbourhood. Like so many other families, he is dejected by inefficient police and weak authorities.
“Everything feels hopeless. The results from the DNA test that were taken to prove that it was Jimmy’s blood on the murder weapon have not been seen. Now these men are after new victims. I no longer dare send my children to school,” he says.
While Jimmy’s father continues to fight for justice, the families in Buikwe will continue to beat the drums to save lives. The fight against child sacrifice is, if not endless, a fight that will take many years. Because in rural Uganda, superstition becomes needs. Needs become the livelihood of others, and as long as the authorities are lining their pockets, one murder becomes several murders.
While we are working on this article, a father is arrested after attempting to sell his two children for two million Ugandan shilling (approximately 700 dollar). The wife found a human head in the man’s bag and reported it to the police.
POPULATION: 38.8 million (2015).
• Northern Uganda was populated from the 3rd millennium BC by people who had emigrated from Nubia. Later, the Bantu-speaking people came from the west, and people from Hamitic descent from the northeast, among others. In the northern areas, different clan systems emerged, while in the south, different kingships appeared.
• From around 1840, the northern areas were attacked by Egyptian and Sudanese slave traders, and shortly after, the first European explorers arrived in the country.
• In 1890, England and Germany signed an agreement giving Uganda the status of British protectorate
• From then on, the country was under British rule until they gained their independence in 1962. For the next nine years, until Major General Idi Amin took power in a military coup in 1971, the country was marked by instability. The current president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power since 1986.
SOCIETY AND POLITICS
• Museveni seized power during a coup d’etat in 1986. For many years, the West used Museveni as an example to be followed, but during recent years, criticism toward him has increased. This is mainly because democratic rules are not being upheld. Despite a multi-party system being introduced in 2005, Ugandan politics is dominated by Museveni and his party. Multi-party elections are held every five years, but there are no limitations to how many periods the head of state can hold power. In 2011, Museveni was re-elected president with just under 70 per cent of the votes. The time after the elections has been marked by conflict between the president and the opposition, due to accusations of election fraud. In recent years the police have been criticised for cracking down heavily on demonstrations and assemblies arranged by the political opposition.
• After terrorising the population of northern Uganda for more than 20 years, the rebel group Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) was driven out of the country in 2006. At most, a million people were displaced in the north of the country. Thousands of children have been abducted and forced to server as child soldiers.
• Uganda is one of the countries in the world with the highest population growth rate, while at the same time being hard hit by the AIDS epidemic, and therefore having a very young population. More than 50 per cent of the population is under 18 years old. Life expectancy is 54 years for men and 55 years for women.
• Sexual minorities are subject to discrimination and homosexuality is forbidden in Uganda.
• Approximately 70 per cent of the population in Uganda are farmers. The majority of the agricultural sector is self-sufficiency farming, but some coffee and fish are exported.
• Uganda had a good economic base when the country gained independence in 1962.
• However, during his reign, Idi Amin expelled all foreign expertise and industry, something that badly affected the country’s economy.
• The long-standing conflict with LRA has had a negative effect on the economy.
• Although Uganda is still considered to be very poor, the country has seen a strong economic growth in recent years. (6,3 per cent in 2014) GDB per capita: 788 dollars (2014).
• Lack of energy and electricity however poses a major challenge for industrial development. Equally, widespread corruption that influences the ability to deliver public services and to attract investment.
• There are major expectations, however, for the large oil discoveries that have been made in Lake Albert in recent years.
• Uganda was one of the first priority partners for Norwegian aid in Africa. In 1996, the country gained status as main partner for Norwegian aid, a position Uganda also held from the 1960s until the international collaboration was terminated in 1973, after Amin’s seizure of power.
• The Norwegian aid is directed to several sectors, first and foremost to the development of a better governance, economic development, education and environment and energy. In 2014, the bilateral aid to Uganda consisted of more then 47 million US Dollars.
• Since the 1980s, Norway have been central in the development of the petroleum sector in the country. Through the initiative Oil for Development (OfD), Norway has since 2006 granted around 6 million US Dollars per year, with the exception of a period where aid was suspended due to corruption cases and a controversial anti-gay law.