“We keep finding bodies. It was once a month then once every two or three weeks then every week,” said Rose Nakasinge, a middle-aged farmer. “We had to do something.”
In a gruesome spate of killings the bodies of at least 20 women have been found dumped in two areas of Uganda’s Wakiso District since May. Many of the mostly young victims were raped and strangled, some had sticks shoved into their vaginas, others had body parts sawn off.
Women living in Nansana, a suburb of the capital Kampala, and in Katabi, close to Entebbe, 35 kilometres (22 miles) to the southwest, see similarities in the murders that have hit their neighbourhoods and whisper of serial killers and dark rituals.
In late August police announced the arrest of more than 30 people, charging 13 of them with “murder and terrorism”, but no evidence has yet been made public and the killings have continued, forcing residents to take matters into their own hands.
Nakasinge is a member of a dozens-strong citizens’ patrol that sets out every night around Katabi, on an isolated peninsula jutting into Lake Victoria.
Pulling on a pair of rubber boots for trudging through the marshy land Nakasinge explained that while she has lived in Katabi all her life, others are itinerant, arriving in search of casual work at nearby flower farms or the international airport.
“They come and go and we don’t even know most of them,” she said.
Face sliced off
Setting out at 10pm and accompanied by a local police officer, the patrol flags down vehicles to check identity documents and search cars.
“Since we started patrolling there have been no bodies,” said Nakasinge after another stop-and-search.
Walking in single file through a wood of tall pine and eucalyptus trees one recent night the patrol silently scanned the dense undergrowth for anything out of place. They stop, listen for unexpected noises above the hum and chirp of insects in the dark.
Reaching a clearing where children play football by day, the patrol solemnly paused at the spot where the partially decomposed body of 31-year-old Faith Komugisha was discovered in June.
“I felt scared when I saw the shape the body was in,” admitted local police commander Gilbert Besigye, who was out with the civilian patrol.
“Her skin had turned white, there was a long stick in her privates, one breast had been cut off and so had her face,” Besigye recalled. “It was as if the killer was making a mask.”
Officially, nine bodies have been discovered around here but journalist Georgewilliam Kakooza, who lives in the town, believes the true number could be higher.
“The first bodies were found in February but nobody noticed a pattern. Some of the women were prostitutes and they were all poor, just passing through for work,” he said.
Kakooza has followed the killings closely and spotted similarities.
“Someone goes missing then days later, sometimes a week, their decomposing body is discovered. But at that place there’s no blood and no signs of a struggle. I think they’re being taken somewhere then their body dumped later.”
Theories but no evidence
National police spokesman Asan Kasingye dismisses widespread fears of a serial killer, instead blaming “an organised criminal gang with strong links to ritual murders.” He also said “domestic violence” was a factor.
“We don’t have one serial killer on the loose, but we have a group of people,” he told a recent press conference.
Police chief Kale Kayihura has insisted that “we are on top of the situation” but the words are little comfort to fearful women and victims’ relatives.
Annet Nakachwa’s big sister, Josephine, was murdered in July in Nansana. The 17-year-old said the fear has not shifted despite the arrests.
“Every time we go to work, on return you expect the worst to happen,” she said.
As the bodies pile up so does the confusion surrounding the multiple cases and their possible motives. In parliament, the minister of internal affairs, Jeje Odongo, a former general, blamed the “Illuminati”, a sinister secret society that is a favourite of conspiracy theorists the world over.
Odongo then contradicted police claiming to know that “two businessmen” — named in the local press — had hired a convicted serial killer to carry out ritual murders to bring them prosperity. He told AFP that the man had been arrested and confessed to killing nine women “whom he strangled and collected their blood.”
However, like the police, Odongo provided no evidence to support his story leaving Ugandan women none the wiser and still afraid.