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‘They Stole My Child’: Mothers of Newborns Missing From Hospital Speak Out

Sep 22 2016 6:40 PM
‘They Stole My Child’: Mothers of Newborns Missing From Hospital Speak Out

Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

In Uganda, a spate of baby kidnappings from a maternity ward has led to fears about human trafficking and ritual sacrifice. We met the mothers grieving for their lost children.

As an only child, Fatuma Nansubuga*, 30, wanted so much for her five-year-old boy to have a sibling.

As a woman in Uganda, where at least 16 women die every day through childbirth-related complications—and where the families of two women who bled to death in childbirth have sued the government—she was anxious about her second pregnancy.

But she didn't think she needed to worry about her child until after she gave birth to him. Today Nansubuga is one of several anguished parents whose newborn babies went missing in cases of alleged theft—a horrific nightmare beyond imagination. Now Nansubuga is demanding answers from the country's biggest hospital, Mulago National Referral Hospital in the capital of Kampala.

"I think about it and I cry," says Nansubuga, sobbing as she explains her suspicions that hospital staff sold her child in December, before telling her the baby boy was stillborn. They offered no explanation for his death. To this date, she still hasn't been given the body of her child to bury.

Her husband threw her out of their home. "[He] said, 'You don't just go to the hospital and come back without a child,'" says Nansubuga. "When I raise my eyes to look at Mulago I hate them. I know that they stole my child."

According to a consultant doctor, the Mulago hospital labor suite sees up to 100 mothers a day. In May, Nansubuga's lawyers from the advocacy group Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) wrote to Mulago inquiring about the child's fate. They received no response and are now launching a legal case.

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CEHURD are also representing Michael Mubangizi and Jennifer Musimenta. They were told their baby girl Nakato, a twin, had died within minutes of Musimenta giving birth at Mulago in 2012. They searched the hospital for the body of their child for three days, before the midwife finally handed them one. A DNA test later revealed that the dead baby was not theirs.

Baby stealing and swapping is a "systemic issue" that's been around for "a while" in Uganda, according to lawyer Primah Kwagala, who said that the country's health system was "on life support," with a staffing gap of over 3,500 positions that the government has refused to fix.

"There could be more cases because of lack of transparency but also documentation," she says. "[But] some parents prefer to keep a low profile because they don't want to go public."

Although Nansubuga's baby was overdue, she had been told the child was alive and well. When she began having labor pains on Boxing Day in December 2015, the market vendor trekked the five miles from her house in Kyebando, a Kampala suburb, to Mulago alone.

Michael Mubangizi and his wife Jennifer Musimenta with their daughter Babirye. Photo by Amy Fallon

When she arrived, Nansubuga was told by a midwife she would give birth normally, but during the night, her mother requested she be given labor-inducing drugs. According to Nansubuga, the nurse refused and told Nansubuga to inject herself.

"My mother kept pleading and the midwife said, 'What do you have?' I told the midwife [that my mother] had 100,000 shillings ($30)." The midwife instead responded, 'That's not enough for chicken for dinner.'"

The next morning, the nurse returned with surgical gloves so Nansubuga and her mother could put the money inside, to try to conceal it.

After a 15-hour labor, Nansubuga woke up after a C-section and asked one of the nurses who'd taken her to operating theater where her baby was. Nansubuga was told he had died.

I started crying, but I was told to stop because I would tear my stitches.

"I was not told anything else," says Nansubuga. "I started crying, but I was told to stop because I would tear my stitches."A nurse called her husband on the phone, outside the room, to give him the grim news.

Nansubuga claims that when they went to the mortuary the next day with the same nurse, their name was not on the list of those who had lost children. According to Nansubuga, the nurse had informed her husband that the bodies of six children had been brought to the mortuary the day she gave birth.

Mubangizi and Jennifer Musimenta's legal case set a significant precedent for the rights of Ugandan patients to access their medical records, but Kwagala said this still isn't happening.

Nansubuga had snuck out of the hospital with her own records, which show the baby was about three-and-a-half kilograms (seven pounds, 11 ounces). This matches none of the records of the six deceased children from the hospital that had been brought to the mortuary, claims Nansubuga.

New renovations underway at Mulago.

"I suspect that my child was sold in the theater in Mulago," says Nansubuga. "Why did they not show me a dead body?"

Police say the last case they had of a baby disappearing from Mulago was in December.

"It could be commercial and then also there are many social factors. In some of our traditions, your marriage or relationship status is much more guaranteed if you have a baby," says former police spokesperson Fred Enanga, on the motivations for such an a crime. "There are those who don't want to go through the adoption process, or they're not aware [of it], so they're using informal means of getting babies."

Mulago spokesperson Enoch Kusasira told Broadly that the hospital could not comment on specific cases of kidnapping, but says that "there are so many ladies who are in frustrated relationships" and this was fuelling child theft.

"They deceive their spouses, who are staying far [away], that they are pregnant, and when it is time for delivery, they go to Mulago to steal children," he explains, stressing that this was not orchestrated by underpaid health workers. "Someone could [also] be stealing these children to sacrifice them." Ritual sacrifice, involving a mutilated child's body parts and organs being given to a witch doctor, has disturbingly become too common in Uganda.

The hospital has also sought to increase awareness of the risk of child theft. "We intensified our [safety] campaigns because these incidents have been happening time and again," Kusasira says, adding that the hospital has many signs in both English and the local language Luganda that warn mothers to be careful with their children.

Over a year ago Mulago purchased 11 closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) in the maternity wards to deliberately target baby theft. As part of a government-wide initiative across all public hospitals, the hospital now has a biometric computer system that uses fingerprints to track staff attendance and the movements of people visiting the hospital, which Kusasira says has "helped a great deal." They also restrict access to wards, according to Enanga.

He is still out there somewhere, we don't know where. I always think about it.

Michael Mubangizi, one of the parents bringing a case against Mulago, however, fears that security cameras could be easily switched off.

"Other parents have to be alert, because there is a system of child stealing in the hospital. What happened to us is an example," says the father, as Babirye, the other child born to the couple, now four years old, plays around him.

Even with surveillance, Enanga admits Uganda's health workers, who are overworked and underpaid, could still "have a hand" in baby snatching. Medical interns at Mulago have recently staged strikes over late payment of allowances.

"Many of these cases are an inside job," he says. "There are still many health centers where people do deliver but without CCTVs, without these biometric systems. Police can't be at all health centers. What happens up country? [Outside Kampala], you can't tell."

And the security crackdown at Mulago is little comfort to the families still demanding answers from the hospital about their missing children.

"He is still out there somewhere, we don't know where," says mother Patience Kamugisha*, 38, crying in her lawyer's office. "I always think about it. I have so many questions. What does he look like? So many questions, so many."

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She and her husband claim they were told their baby boy died with no explanation after she had a C-section in 2006. Later they were given the body of a girl to bury, with a doctor altering "fe" to "male" in the notes; the medic later admitted to this in a disciplinary council hearing. Years later, after they'd managed to conduct DNA tests, they learned the child's body they had been given was not theirs.

The doctor in the case received only a two-year ban by Uganda's Medical and Dental Practitioners Council (UMDPC), but is now practicing again, according to Kamugisha's lawyer, Jackie Mukasa Kalule. Kamugisha's case for damages from Mulago has been put on hold until later this year.

Mubangizi, a mechanic, 32, and his wife, Musimenta, 22, are waiting for compensation in another long-running court battle against the hospital. The case was in court in May but has now been adjourned until January 2017. "There's something fishy," says Kwagala, adding that the same doctor as in Nansubuga's case, who was still practicing, had been involved.

While they say they want damages against the hospital, most of all, they want to know where their daughter is.

She will come back, because twins don't disappear.

"It was a plan of the nurses and doctors," said Mubangizi, adding that he and his wife haven't explained the case to Babirye, though the little girl knows she'd had a sister and often asks for her.

He fears that Nakato could have been used in a sacrifice; he also fears that Nakato could have been given to someone who couldn't produce children, or trafficked to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or other countries. Last year, MPs warned that children were disappearing from the country in "dubious circumstances", according to a local paper and Uganda recently enacted a law in a bid to crackdown on this and illegal adoptions.

But Mubangizi still has a sliver of hope.

"Twins in Uganda are a special gift from God," he says. "She will come back, because twins don't disappear."

* Name has been changed

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