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.