NAKASONGOLA, Uganda — It’s been a year since Cynthia Misanya found the dismembered body of her 10-year-old daughter, Jane, in a pit under an outhouse. The girl had gone to fetch water in a nearby swamp when she was abducted, strangled and dismembered. Body parts were recovered miles away.
“I was shocked when I saw the mutilated body of my daughter,” Misanya, 30, wept as she recalled the horror. “I really couldn’t believe if she was really my daughter. She was missing almost every part of her body. She died a very painful death.”
Police later arrested a wealthy neighbor, businessman Gilbert Odima, who authorities alleged used Jane as a human sacrifice in a witchcraft ritual designed to bring him good fortune. “He confessed to me that he carried out the ritual to boost his dwindling business,” Misanya recounted about Odima, who is now in prison awaiting trial. “He said he knew the act would bring him good luck and success in life.”
Misanya’s gruesome experience is only too common in Uganda, where human sacrifice — especially of children — occurs despite the government's efforts to stop it. Ugandan figures show seven child and six adult sacrifices in 2015, the most recent numbers available. In 2014, police recorded nine child and four adult sacrifices. Five years before, they counted 29 cases in total, the most in recent years.
The actual number of human sacrifices likely is higher, says Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, which rehabilitates children lucky enough to escape the ritual. The organization tallied six cases this year in the capital of Kampala alone. Thousands of children go missing in Uganda annually, and dozens are likely victims of sacrifice, said Peter Sewakiryanga, a pastor and the aid group's director.
“There are several cases of child sacrifice which are neither reported to us nor police,” said Sewakiryanga. “But we act in time to help those people who report to us. We provide financial and medical care for survivors of child sacrifice.”
Fueling the practice are witch doctors and believers willing to kill and offer body parts to dark spirits to get rich, heal diseases, mitigate misfortunes, forestall impending events or even help their favorite candidates win elections.
Child body parts are especially prized in rituals because people believe mixing their blood with herbs makes a strong concoction that can cure diseases and appease local spirits. Genitalia are especially prized.
“The witch doctors will tell people who want to become rich to sacrifice human blood and some private parts of the body,” said Moses Binoga, a police commissioner who coordinates the fight against child trafficking and sacrifice.
Binoga said many Ugandans believe such superstitions. “Sometimes spirits may demand a certain body part of the child,” he said. “If you can be able to get it, then this becomes currency to exchange with the evil spirits so that they grant you success.”
In 2009, the Uganda government imposed the death penalty for anyone who removed a child’s body part for human sacrifice or other witchcraft, or trafficked children for that purpose.
Yet child rights activists said the death penalty is rarely imposed on those convicted. Last year, for example, a Ugandan court sentenced an 82-year-old woman, Hanifa Namuyanja, to 15 years in jail for participating in the 2012 sacrifice of her granddaughter.
In another sensational case in Kampala last October, four people were arrested for the sacrifice of Milly Namutebi, 7, and Victor Lugonvu, 4. Police said the alleged killers seduced the children with promises of soda and cookies, then diverted them to a swamp, where they murdered the pair, cutting out their hearts and parts of the girl’s genitalia.
The four accused are now facing trial. But Binonga said the case could be difficult to end in justice because Ugandan courts can take as long as five years to rule in such cases, and key witnesses and parents pressing for convictions often move away before verdicts are rendered.
The failure to halt these horrible crimes leaves children living in fear. “I don’t walk alone,” said Geoffrey Buyasi, 12, who lives in Luweero in central Uganda. He said his mother accompanies him to school. “I fear being kidnapped and murdered by witch doctors. ... I run anytime I see a stranger.”
Here in Nakasongola, about 70 miles north of Kampala, Misanya says she still is hoping her daughter's murderer gets the death penalty. “The government should curb this practice. I still feel the pain of losing a child in such a manner,” she said. “I want him also mutilated like he did to my daughter.”