Searching for Kamo: What happens when a child goes missing?

A photojournalist captures the moment the inspector leading the search for a missing child reports back to her aunt.

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Inspector 'Stroppie' Grobbelaar struggles to tell Anna Lesele, the aunt and adoptive mother of seven-year-old Kamo, the search team has not found her, December 2005 [File: Mariella Furrer/Al Jazeera]

For more than 10 years, I delved into the world of child sexual abuse in South Africa. During this time, I spent a few years working intermittently with several units of the South African Police Service, in various provinces around the country.

I also worked with a task team set up to fight the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children. One of the officers leading this operation was Inspector “Stroppie” Grobbelaar, from the Soweto Police Search and Rescue Canine Unit. There are few human beings on the planet as dedicated as Stroppie. His work was not only a matter of life or death but a race against time.

At the time, Stroppie worked with his dog, Fargu, who was trained to be both a search and rescue dog and a cadaver dog. 

One December, while I was working with Stroppie, we received an alert that a young child was missing. Kamogelo Sekome was a seven-year-old girl known to her family as Kamo. 

A kidnapping case was opened at the Eldorado Police Station when a neighbour said she had seen Kamo in her school uniform and carrying her school bag, walking hand in hand with an unknown man along a nearby highway.

Two months earlier, in October, there had been a huge outcry because of the way the police had handled the disappearance of six-year-old Michaela Ghairoenisha Ganchi. When Michaela’s mother had tried to report her daughter missing, the police told her to come back 24 hours later.

Several weeks after she disappeared, Stoppie discovered Michaela’s raped and mutilated body. The case affected him so deeply that it was one of the reasons why he quit the police service several years later – after almost 20 years on the job. He can rarely bring himself to speak about Michaela.

It was a few weeks after the discovery of Michaela’s body that Kamo was reported missing – close to where Michaela had been found.

Stroppie led the search party for Kamo. Once the alert came in, the search and rescue units from different places met at an agreed location. A map of the area was studied and discussed, and after identifying the most likely areas for a child to be taken, the search began.

Some officers went into the community, others scoured the surrounding fields on foot or quad bike. Flyers were printed and handed out in the area and its surroundings, alerting people that a child was missing. Search dogs and their handlers rode canoes down nearby rivers, dams and lakes. Helicopters were sent out for aerial reconnaissance. Police abseiled down caves and crevices. The mounted unit searched denser areas on horseback. Every manhole and stormwater drain was checked.

The morning of Kamo’s disappearance, she had overslept, but her aunt and adoptive mother, Anna Lesele, woke her up and sent her off as it was the last day of the school year.

The day before, Anna had bought Kamo new clothes for Christmas and the young girl had been over the moon as she tried them all on. She was excited about the holidays and about moving up to Grade 3 that coming January.

Five years earlier, Kamo’s mother had died. For two years, Kamo had lived in an orphanage before she and her two siblings were adopted by their aunt, Anna. Anna and Kamo had really bonded during the years they had lived together.

Every day, Stroppie would check in on Anna. He would talk to her, make sure she was getting the support she needed and give her updates on the search for Kamo, telling her that they still had hope. After a few days of searching for a missing child, the chances of finding them alive diminish considerably but everyone still held out hope for Kamo.

Looking at this photo of one of Stroppie’s visits with Anna takes me back to that day, to the search for Kamo. It makes me heartsore. The expression on Anna’s face, the void in her eyes, really convey to me the magnitude of her loss, the helplessness of her situation and her anguish at the disappearance of her beloved daughter. Stroppie’s body language shows the burden he is carrying, the immense stress he is under, the urgency to find Kamo – alive.

The search for Kamo went on for a month. She was never found.

Source: Al Jazeera