Kampala, Uganda – Noah Musiba sat by the door all night listening out for a noise that would signal the return of his wife. His nine-year-old daughter, Sheerat, lay on a mattress on the floor by his feet, wide awake.
It was the early hours of Thursday, September 14, and Harriet Nantongo, Noah’s wife of 10 years and Sheerat’s mother, had not returned from work.
“I hoped that maybe she had slept at her sister’s place, but when we went to look, she wasn’t there,” said Noah, “so we started searching all the hospitals”.
By the afternoon, Musiba reported his wife missing, fearing the worst.
For the past year, she had been working at a local rubbish dump, sifting through the garbage in search of polythene bags to wash in a nearby stream.
On a good day, she could sell two 15kg bunches of bags and return home with $3 in her pocket on the three-hour walk back to her family.
But on Wednesday night, she hadn’t come back.
In the preceding months, several bodies of women had been found dumped in that area, all of them naked, strangled, and with sticks in their vaginas.
The first victim was found in Nansana district, not far from Kampala, on May 27.
By May 30, three more women had been found, all killed and dumped in a similar way. Of those four bodies, only one was identified – Nampijja Juliet, a mother of two who lived in the area.
Several more – Regina Bakitte, mayor of Nansana, put that number at at least 10 women – some of whom remain unidentified, were found in banana gardens and cassava fields in the following weeks. In early June, the murders had spread to Katabi Town, in Entebbe district, where Harriet lived with her family.
To date, there have been a total of 23 murders, according to the Ugandan police, although many believe the number may be higher. The last body, that of 22-year-old waitress Sarah Neliima, was found on September 20.
The first few murders went almost unnoticed “perhaps because the victims are all low-income women, and women are never a priority in this country”, said Sandra Nassali, a representative of the local organisation ACFODE.
When the police did start investigating, the reasons they gave for the murders were varied and contradictory.
At first, Kale Kayihura, an inspector general, blamed domestic violence. Later, he blamed unemployment, drug abuse and criminal gangs.
On September 7, Jeje Odongo, internal affairs minister, claimed in parliament that the murders were linked to a group of “devil worshipping” Illuminati.
Asan Kasingye, a police spokesperson, told Al Jazeera: “Some of the murders were related to land, and then they gravitated to domestic violence.
“Over half of these women were prostitutes, while the others were engaged in several personal relationships, and they were taken advantage of.”
But Ugandans are not satisfied with any of these explanations, and many point to possible political motives.
“I don’t believe that it has anything to do with witchcraft,” said Bakitte, the mayor of Nansana. “I think it’s political.”
Bakitte, a member of the Democratic Party, thinks that the government might be organising the killings in an attempt to discredit the opposition.
“This is an opposition stronghold, and so is Katabi. It’s not a coincidence. They want people to live in fear.”
Al Jazeera made several attempts to contact government representatives for a response, to no avail.
Bakitte also suggested that the bodies were dumped in strategic areas – patches of land and gardens belonging to smallholder farmers, in an area where the value of land is steadily increasing.
“They could use it as an excuse to say that if people don’t develop their land, then the government has the right to grab it from them for security reasons,” says Bakitte, pointing to recent controversy surrounding a proposed amendment to the constitution which would allow the government to take over private land before compensation.
The theories are wide-ranging.
The mayor of Katabi Town, Ronald Kalema, believed the murders could be a “ruthless act by somebody who wants to hurt the government”, an attempt to make Uganda look insecure.
“Plus, you can’t underestimate the importance of Entebbe, where the president lives. If you cannot protect Entebbe, you are showing you cannot protect the country,” he said.
Another theory points to a widely reported clash between leaders of different security agencies – Kahiyura, the police inspector general (IGP), and Henry Tumukunde, the security minister.
“One of the rumours is that someone is doing this to discredit the IGP and make him look bad”, says Bakitte, the Democratic Party member.
Another rumour? “The police are doing this to get more resources and funds,” she said.
In Katabi, people back the idea that the police are involved.
“Everyone knows that it is the [police] doing this,” says a local driver, who requested anonymity.
Kasingye, the police spokesman, told Al Jazeera that he was “99 percent certain that there is no organisation with a political or economic agenda” behind the killings, and that the rumours have taken hold because “people in this area support the opposition, and this rumour works for them”.
Tumukunde refused Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Jude Kagoro, a researcher based in Germany, has spent more than a decade studying Ugandan security services and police.
Although he did not believe police are involved, he said the spiralling of rumours is unsurprising.
“These rivalries are not new. Different security agencies must vie for the attention of the president, for resources, for recognition. If you don’t compete you’re out of the game,” he said.
Mercy Muduru spent weeks conducting her own investigation and poring over case files.
She is a senior programme manager at The Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA), and is one of the activists convinced that this is not the work of a serial killer, nor is it anything to do with witchcraft.
“This is something deeper, something political,” she said.
“What better time than this one to send a message?” she says.
Like other activists, Muduru is outraged by what she sees as a lack of action by the authorities to protect women, and by the way in which cases are being discussed.
“The trend is always to taint the character of women, and this is why the police are claiming that the victims are prostitutes, even though our research shows that the majority are not … it shouldn’t matter anyway, no one deserves to be killed like that,” she says.
President Museveni visited Entebbe on September 25, months after the murders had started, to reassure locals that the cases were being investigated and that authorities would “apprehend those behind the killings”.
But the various theories swirling around, says researcher Kagoro, are representative of the low opinion Ugandans have of their government and security forces.
“Psyche and reality might be two different things, but the reasons people think the way they think also tell us a lot,” he says.
An unknown number of people – “more than 30” including a 16-year-old girl, according to Kasingye – have been arrested over the cases and remain in police custody. At least two businessmen, who have been named in the local press, have been charged with “terrorism”, murder and aggravated robbery.
One of the accused, Ivan Katongole, was due to appear in court recently, but his case was postponed after state prosecutors went on strike. Katongole works in the local fish business, and was accused of carrying out the murders to increase his wealth through witchcraft – an accusation he denies.
Muduru, the activist, points to much of the evidence being circumstantial in these cases and fears that some of those currently in custody may be innocent.
“I am disappointed in the way this is being managed, and I place all weight on the state to seek justice,” she says.
Back in Katabi, Noah recalls telling his wife to be careful as she crossed the busy highway, the last time he saw her alive.
Six days after he reported her missing, a search party of friends and relatives and neighbours found her body in a bush close to her workplace.
“I heard people screaming and Harriet’s sister held me back. I collapsed when they said it was her,” he says.
They had given up on the police helping with the search.
Since that day, Noah has not been contacted by police, nor has he received any kind of support.
As Noah looks for ways to pay for his daughter’s education without Harriet’s meagre income, the young motherless girl stays with an aunt.