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When James Katana returned from a church service to his village in the Bugiri district of eastern Uganda he was told that his three-year old son had been taken away by strangers.

“We were looking for my child for hours, but we couldn’t find him,” he said. “Someone rang me and told me my son was dead and had been left in the forest. I ran there and saw him lying in a pool of blood. His genitals had been cut off, but he was still alive.” A witch-doctor is now in police custody, accused of the abduction and attempted murder of the boy.

Despite the mutilation and terror the child experienced, police say he was one of the lucky ones. Uganda has been shocked by a surge in ritualistic murders and human sacrifice, with police struggling to respond and public hysteria mounting at each gruesome discovery.

In 2008 more than 300 cases of murder and disappearances linked to ritual ceremonies were reported to the police with 18 cases making it to the courts. There were also several high-profile arrests of parents and relatives accused of selling children for human sacrifice.

In January this year the Ugandan government appointed a special police taskforce on human sacrifice and announced that 2,000 officers were to receive specialist training in tackling child trafficking with the support of the US government. Since the taskforce was set up there have been 15 more murders linked to human sacrifice with another 200 disappearances, mainly of children and young adults, under investigation.

Both police and NGOs are attributing the surge to a new wave of commercial witch-doctors using mass media to market their services and demand large sums of money to sacrifice humans and animals for people who believe blood will bring great prosperity.

“Cases of child sacrifice have always existed, mainly in the Ugandan central region, but there is a new strain of traditional healers in Uganda and their geographical spread is mainly attributed to increased unemployment and poverty,” said Elena Lomeli. She is a volunteer with the British charity VSO who is supporting ANPPCAN Uganda, a child abuse NGO, in its work with victims in the capital Kampala. “My experience working with victims suggests that the abusers are greedy people who want to get rich quick. In rural areas, people can sacrifice their own child. In urban areas, educated and rich people will look for somebody else’s.”

Looming food shortages and famine hitting Uganda’s poorest in the north and east are also feeding the demand for sacrificial rituals. “These are not poor people paying for these rituals, they are the wealthy elite taking advantage of the desperate poor,” said Binoga. “In January a 21-year-old woman was jailed for 16 months for kidnapping a child and trying to sell him to a witch-doctor for a large sum. These cases are on the increase.”

Ugandan police are increasingly linking the sudden increase in cases to organ trafficking. The anti-human trafficking taskforce said many of the bodies found in the past few months were missing organs such as kidneys, hearts and livers, a detail not consistent with many traditional ritualistic practices.

Government officials have warned that perceived police inaction over the ritual murders could lead to political instability as mob justice takes over.

Roland Kakooza Mutale, director of special duties in Uganda’s state house, said the ritual murders of mostly poor children were “politically frightening” and that action had to be taken quickly.

This is an edited version of a story, which first appeared in The Observer on 6 September 2009. Click here to read it in full.

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Gloria Sherman was 13 years old when Charles Taylor‘s soldiers came for her in 2001. Flushed from her hiding place in the bush outside her village in Lofa, northern Liberia, she was forced to watch as her father and brother were skinned alive. Then she was taken into a captivity lasting nearly two years: a conscript child soldier and a sexual slave in the former president’s army.

She is 18 now, but the memories are still raw. “We used to do bad, bad things that they told us to do,” she said last week. “Sometimes even if you were only 10 years old they would put guns and ammunition on your head to carry to the battle; you have to do what they said or they’d kill you. They killed many children, many girls. All the time many soldiers would have sex with you, every night they would come and have sex and beat you, and if you said no they would kill you or hit you with guns.”

 

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Two years of systematic rape and beatings have left Gloria with jagged scars and internal injuries so severe that she has little chance of ever becoming a mother. When she managed to escape from her captors and make her way back to her village, she found that she was now an outcast.

Labelled a “rebel wife” and accused of collaborating in the violence inflicted on her village by drugged and ruthless soldiers during the war, she says that the only way she can survive is by having sex with men – NGO workers, government officials and businessmen – who often pay her in food, sanitary towels or soap.

“They say we are bad girls because of what we did in the war and what we do now,” Gloria said. “But they took me and I had no choice.”

This is an edited extract of an article on Liberia’s former child soldiers first published in The Observer on 12 July 2009. Click here to read the original article in full and to watch the video.

The partially clothed body of Eudy Simelane, former star of South Africa‘s acclaimed Banyana Banyana national female football squad, was found in a creek in a park in Kwa Thema, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Simelane had been gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. As well as being one of South Africa’s best-known female footballers, Simelane was a voracious equality rights campaigner and one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema.

Her brutal murder took place last April, and since then a tide of violence against lesbians in South Africa has continued to rise. Human rights campaigners say it is characterised by what they call “corrective rape” committed by men behind the guise of trying to “cure” lesbians of their sexual orientation.

This is an edited version of a longer article investigating the phenomenon of “corrective rape” against lesbians in South Africa., which appeared on guardian.co.uk on 12 March 2009.

Click here to see the story as it appeared and watch the video

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Last year, in a village in the east of Sri Lanka, Selvi Ratnarajah opened her door to find three masked men pointing guns at her face. They pushed inside and screamed at her to turn off the lights. When she refused, they shouted for her husband, Ravanana, dragged him into the street and forced him at gunpoint on to the back of a motorbike.

“I went out of the house and ran and ran through the bush,” she said, fingering her husband’s tattered ID card. “I could see the lights of the motorbike ahead and I saw them stop by a bridge. Then I heard shots. I ran towards the noise and I could hear someone breathing. It was dark and there were no lights and I was screaming for him. When I found my husband, they’d shot him in the mouth. He was trying to talk to me. I tried to scream again, but no sound came out. Then he died.”

Ratnarajah says she has no idea who took her husband or why. “When they came to the house, all they said was that he was being taken for questioning, but nobody has ever told me why he was taken,” she says. “Everywhere there are men with arms. We don’t know who they are and what is happening with the fighting, and I don’t know who to trust. I saw him being taken from the house but nobody will listen to me. My husband was never accused of anything.”

As the Sri Lankan military mounts a spring offensive designed to eliminate the Tamil Tigers and end their bloody 26-year struggle for an independent Tamil homeland, the civilian population of the Tamil-dominated regions is terrorised, displaced and fears the worst.

As rebel soldiers melt back into the civilian population, and the number of those displaced by the fighting swells, tales of brutality and intimidation are legion. Meanwhile, people are simply disappearing.

This is an extract of a longer article on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in the days before the government finally crushed the last remaining Tamil Tiger forces, which first appeared in The Observer on 5 April 2009.  Click here to read the article in full.

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To reach Zambia’s new frontline in its long and protracted battle against the HIV/Aids virus, you have to leave the hospital wards and government buildings of Lusaka and head out into the wide open expanses of the bush.

Eight hours west of the capital in the dusty Mouyo rural health centre, 62-year-old Baxter Kayombo Mubanga describes himself as a soldier waging war against the disease that has killed so many of his friends and neighbours.

“Out here we are fighting, fighting, fighting against this epidemic,” he says. “I am sick to the bone of seeing my community shrivel and die with this disease. When I discovered I was HIV positive in 2003 I told all my neighbours to take the test; most of them who refused are now dead. We have to say enough is enough.”

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Transmission is still highest in Zambia’s urban centres and industrial copper belt. But it is in rural communities like Mouyo that a lack of access to health facilities, chronic shortages of trained healthcare workers, and cultural stigma and discrimination have ensured HIV rates remain stubbornly high.

This is an extract from a longer article on how Zambians are fighting back against the rise of HIV/Aids, which first appeared in The Guardian in October 2008.  Click here to read it in full.

When 60 countries from around the world pledged their commitment to the new Millennium Declaration in 2000, Liberia wasn’t included in the handshakes and photographs. The small west African state was at war, in the grips of a bitter and bloody civil conflict that had killed hundreds of thousands of its own people and decimated its fragile economy.

Eight years on, the scars remain. Liberia is still one of the least developed countries in the world. Informal unemployment hovers around the 85% mark, access to health services, clean water and sanitation remains limited, and 76% of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

In 2006, a new government headed by former World Bank and UN director Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, pledged to rebuild Liberia’s economy, heal the deep rifts caused by political corruption and tackle the chronic poverty faced by many of its people.

Speaking to the Guardian by telephone from Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf acknowledges that a history of persistent bad governance and an almost total lack of institutional capacity have chronically undermined Liberia’s chances of hitting any of the targets.

“When the world agreed to the millennium development goals, we were seeing our country regressing developmentally,” says Johnson Sirleaf. “Since then we’ve been trying to catch up.”

This is an extract of an interview with Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, which was first published in The Guardian in August 2008. Click here to read it in full.

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The green highlands of West Badawacho in south-west Ethiopia are not a place where you would expect to find hunger. The land is fertile and lush. Rain falls on fields covered with waist-high maize and red flowers dot the tree-lined tracks leading deep into rural farming land.

But West Badawacho is in the grip of the worst “green famine” it has experienced in decades and severe malnutrition can be found in many of the villages dotted among these fields. Here, and across Ethiopia, drought, high population density, successive failed rains and rapidly rising food prices are dovetailing to create a crisis. Ethiopia is bearing the brunt of the food shortages currently sweeping across east Africa threatening the lives of millions.

In June the government said 4.6 million people in drought-affected parts of the country required £162.5m of assistance, but unofficial estimates from donor agencies following recent nationwide assessments put the figure closer to 8-10 million people.

In West Badawacho, the lushness of the land masks a near total crop failure across the district. More than 90% of the people here are smallholder farmers, surviving on twice-yearly harvests of maize and root crops. For them the poor harvests of 2007 and the repeated failure of the crucial March-May rains have spelled disaster.

This article was first published in The Guardian in August 2008. Click here to read it in full.

Click here to watch the video report.

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