Marco Vernaschi, for the Pulitzer Center

Katugwe, Uganda

Please be advised the following project contains graphic images that may not be suitable for all audiences.

There are things in life that are hard to believe and what I had just heard is certainly among them. A local journalist and I had met for dinner to exchange some information about recent cases of child sacrifice. While we wait for our dinner to be served, he mentions the most recent case of a girl who had been mutilated and killed, in the village of Katugwe, about one hour from Kampala. "When did this happen?" I ask. "Today," he answers, sipping his cola.

I decide to leave the restaurant and drive immediately to this place, led by another local journalist who was sharing dinner with us and who offered to show me the way. After almost 40 minutes we leave the main road and drive through the bush, eventually reaching the house of a broken family that is mourning the loss of Margaret Babirye Nankya**, who was only 10 years old.

I'm emotionally torn, uncomfortable. I feel like I'm intruding in someone else's pain, a lacerating pain. After presenting my condolences to the family I try my best to explain why I'm there. The mother of the girl looks at me initially without saying a single word; a look I will never forget. Her eyes were lost in the emptiness of a pain that goes beyond what a human being can stand. She has no more tears, no more words, no strength left. She sits still, on a couch with her younger son, in tears. The chief of the village is also in the house, with another elder and some women.

I explain to the chief of the community that I'm a journalist that I'm trying to expose the practice of child sacrifice. It's hard, in my mind and my words, to make them understand the logic that led me there, late at night. We speak different languages, belong to different cultures, but we have the same human understanding; we both know this practice must be fought and exposed. I try not to speak as a journalist but simply as a human being, naked in front of something that has no explanation. The family appears to understand -- so I push it a little further and, with their permission, I show them some pictures I took from similar cases I've been following through the past month. Everyone gathers around the computer, while I briefly explain the cases I have documented. I'm surprised and moved when the mother interrupts my conversation I'm having with the elder chief. "Thanks for being here" – she says, with a thin voice coming out from the deepness of an unimaginable sorrow. "Thanks to you, for allowing me here" - I answer. ***

At this point I feel the barriers have someway gone and I explain it is part of my job to gather what a journalist would call "visual evidences". Of the many things I have done in my life, this was among the hardest. Being there, out of the blue, in the darkness of this creepy night asking a broken-hearted mother to show me the mutilated corpse of her daughter, is one thing that someway changed my perspective on life. But that is another story.

The mother and the elder chief talk, I don't understand what they say, but then they consent to show me the body. I explain to them that this evidence will be crucial in several ways; I try to imagine the fear and pain Babirye has experienced while a monster ironically called a "healer" was killing her; I imagine her 10 year-old, wide-open eyes crying and staring at the machete that took her life away. And I firmly believe, more than ever since I'm in Uganda, that this horrible death can be turned into something that will help prevent other crimes like this .

We move out of the house. The night is silent and still. Three people start digging in the garden by the house, where the family had buried Babirye just a few hours before. With the utmost respect, and in silence, I follow the whole family while they move the body by the house. No one says a word but then the local chief approaches the corpse and explains in gruesome detail what happened to the girl. Words weren't really necessary; the mutilations themselves speak loud. I take some pictures, trying to use the camera as a filter, something that I hope will protect me from this horrendous reality. It was like taking the express elevator to hell, breathing the smell of a dead, innocent child who was simply guilty of being unable to protect herself from madness.

After a few minutes Babirye is reburied and I go back in the house, following the mother. Her young son walks with her, hand in hand. His father had left their home, years ago. I thank the mother for allowing me to do my job, and she asks me if there's anything I can do for her. So I dare, and I ask her if she would allow me to record a video interview. She consents, and while hugging her child, she says: "He's the one who know every details, because he was around when this happened". I first hesitate, but then I start to record. I will never forget the courage of these people, their dignity and strength. I made them a promise: The death of Babirye won't be in vain. I assure them I'll do everything I can to help them get justice, in a place where justice is a privilege for few and often depends on the money available. The mother tells me they don't trust the court. They know of similar cases that eventually ended up with no conviction and no guilty. I think about the case of Mukisa, and of all the other cases I have seen, and I can't blame her.

Once I'm done with the interview we talk for a while more, then I hug the mother and greet the elders and women. When I'm about to leave the house, the chief of the community ask me for a "contribution". I'm a bit surprised, and I ask what this would be for. The mother says they have no money to hire a lawyer; she said there is a suspect but she's afraid he will bribe the local police and they will let him go. My idea was at first to put the family in touch with RACHO, the NGO I'm working with, as I know they're developing a program that will offer medical and legal assistance to the families of the victims. But I also know that RACHO is still a small organization, and despite the plans and their commitment, they have no funds. So I give the mother some money, making sure this amount will be enough to hire a lawyer. She's a proud woman, and despite the amount being very modest, she says it's enough. I hug her again, and at this point she grabs my hand, and say: "Please, don't let us down".

I drive back to Kampala, in total silence, with the image of Babirye in my eyes. I let the air from the window to ease my mind, trying to find comfort.

The next day, my phone rings. It's Moses Binoga, Chief of the Police Department's Anti-Human Sacrifice and Organ Trafficking section. He's investigating Babirye's case. Moses is a pragmatic, straightforward person; we have been working on other cases for the past month, sharing and exchanging information and we still have one month ahead. When I first visited him, at his office, he was uncomfortable of having journalists around, especially from western countries. He's a proud Ugandan and he doesn't want the world to think his country is the place where people murder children. To some extent, I understand his concern, but I'm glad to see he's fair. In our conversations he has never tried to deny that child sacrifice is happening in Uganda.

On the phone, Moses tells me about Babirye and he invites me to join him in the field to follow the investigation. To his surprise, I answer that I already know about this case. We meet for dinner later this same night, on his return from Katugwe. We discuss the case and then he says: "I know you have been there last night, to photograph the corpse."

In our collaboration over the past month I had never forgotten that Binoga represents a government institution -- and that some people in that government wouldn't be happy with the kind of story I was covering. I have always had some concern he could have sent someone to arrest me or to seize my equipment, and for this reason I always made sure to leave a back-up of my work in safe hands. That night, I understood we were really partnering. If he wanted to make my life difficult, this would have been the perfect chance. Instead, he simply told me I should have informed him, and that what I did wasn't legal.

But Moses is a committed officer and he knows the reasons that pushed me to visit a family in mourning in the middle of the night are good reasons. He understands the meaning and value of the word "evidence;" he deals with that himself, on a daily basis. I remember that once I told him: "Cops and journalists somehow are the same: the only difference is that journalists have no guns, while cops take terrible pictures". He agreed. After sharing some thoughts, Moses drives back home, and so I do. A few days later we meet in his office again, to organize a trip to Gulu, in the north of the country; I had some clues leading to a suspected organ trafficker so I asked him to join me. Unfortunately, I was on a false track, so in that case nothing happened.

Two days before I left Uganda, I learned of a break in Babirye's case. Three suspects, arrested by Moses Binoga, are currently under investigation. Two of them were a man and his wife, people Babirye's mother had asked to look after her child; the third was a "traditional healer." The trio had acted smartly: they buried the corpse in the middle of the forest, far from the village, and in order to make the search more difficult they dug different holes. The whole village where Babirye lived was involved in the search, including the child's 9 year-old brother.

A few days ago I received an email from Moses; among other things, he explained me that "the situation has continued to improve. What we want is to maintain vigilance of public sensitization and offering psychological counseling and some medical assistance to the survival victims and families of those who lost dear ones".

Despite all the difficulties and limits that Binoga faces on a daily basis, he's been able to send a strong message – that justice will be pursued, and perpetrators will be brought to account.

Update 04/21/10: The image of Margaret Babirye Nankya was removed from this post. Read the explanatory post from Pulitzer Center Executive Director, Jon Sawyer

Update 04/25/10: We have updated the post to reflect the spelling of Babirye's full name according to the spelling used by Ugandan newspapers.

Project

Searing images capture a disturbing Ugandan trend -- the recent rise of charlatan priests and the child abuse and sometimes murder that have resulted. (This project contains graphic images that may not be suitable for all audiences.)  

Recently

June 4, 2010 / L'Internazionale
Marco Vernaschi
The Ugandan Police is hunting traditional healers who kidnap children to sacrifice them. And it's fighting against the greed of a new middle class, which rely on magic rituals to get richer.
1
May 31, 2010 / The Sunday Times: Spectrum Magazine
Marco Vernaschi
To access Marco's photo piece on child sacrifice in Uganda for The Sunday Times, users will need to sign-up for a one month free trial.