Human Sacrifice in the Modern World

Murder for divine fortune and appeasement in Uganda and India

Human sacrifice, the intentional killing of a person as part of a religious ritual, is usually explored in the past tense. The infamous civilisations of Central America, of Carthage, of the Celts, can be safely discussed at a distance, the remove of time rendering the reality more of a gentle titillation than a gut wrenching horror. But is this entirely true? Although we tend not to frame certain violent killings as ‘sacrifice’, there have been decades of reports and cases of ritualised satanic murders, brutal acts of savagery in conflict zones and odd cultic insantities, usually best left to hyperbolic tv shows. Does this mean though, that there are no parts of the world where the practice is formalised? Are there traditions, inherited meanings and deep subterranean psychological impulses that continue to exist, out of the glare of the camera? The wikipedia page for human sacrifice has a number of cases from all over the world, often linked to cults and specific individuals. But a few places jump out as struggling with sacrifice as a commonplace problem - Uganda and India, and it's to those I want to turn to explore what modern sacrifice looks like. 

Child Sacrifice in Uganda

Africa in general has a huge problem with human, particularly child, sacrifice. The dominant motivation is to utilise body parts to create ‘muti’ or ‘juju’ medicines. Internal organs, heads and limbs are particularly prized by herbal practitioners, traditional healers, witch-doctors and grifters for the production of potions and remedies, as well as amulets, charms and rituals for good luck and fortune. A horribly typical scenario might involve a local businessman working with a politician to build a new hotel or restaurant, they would commission a child to be kidnapped and murdered so they could offer their body parts along with money for good luck in their commercial venture. A specific case the world is more familiar with is the hunting down and sacrifice of albinos, particularly in Tanzania. A 2013 report documented 106 reported incidents, 34 of them survived the attack, along with 15 grave robberies. A standard attack involves masked men breaking into a family home in the middle of the night and hacking off a child’s limbs before running away into the dark. Sometimes the child might survive, often they do not. While Tanzania has the highest number of cases, the targeting of albinos occurs across Africa, from Mali to Zimbabwe, with body parts crossing many borders to get to the customer. Sometimes these killings are to order, other times the demand is high enough to make it worthwhile for the killers. 

Outside of albino specific murders, some countries more than others have sunk to the point of an institutionalised problem of child sacrifice. Uganda has become notorious for the disappearance of children, many sacrificed ritually at secret shrines. A study in 2012 estimated that at a minimum, one child was being sacrificed every week in the country. One district especially, the Buikwe District, appears to have become synonymous with witchcraft and child murder. The Ugandan government has taken the almost unheard of step of forming the ‘Anti-Child Sacrifice and Mutilation Committee’, demonstrating exactly how serious the problem is. The committee runs a number of projects, including the ‘Community Amber Alert Against Child Sacrifice’ (CAAACS) project in Buikwe. This organised a series of community alerts and protocols for quickly raising the alarm in the district when a child goes missing. A multimedia approach, everything from text messages, radio stations and traditional drums are used to get people out of their houses and searching for the child, often with positive results. A further mind boggling project of the CAAAACS has been to target formal institutions like churches and schools and have them publically take the ‘raise your hand campaign’ pledge to never engage in child sacrifice or the products of child sacrifice. That such measures are considered at all shows the strength of traditional belief in sacrificial medicine. A quote from the report shows the necessity of teaching children at school what to do if and when they are kidnapped: 

“The boy had this to say, “When they were performing their rituals, they took me to a large hut. They untied me thinking I was still unconscious due to chloroform. I quickly ran into a sugarcane plantation nearby as they followed me with spears…” Upon hearing the alert on megaphones, community members began to search for him. When the abductor heard the announcements, they fled. The boy was later discovered at around 12:40PM the next day.According to the boy, he was able to escape his abductors because of the community sensitisations they had had at school. At school, children were taught on what to do when caught up in such a critical situation.”

Of course, not all children are so lucky and fortunate as to escape. Many disappear and are never found, sometimes buried alive on construction sites or in building foundations, while others come to a grisly end and their tormentors are never caught. Three rare survivors of an attempted sacrifice, Kanani Nankunda, George Mukisa and Allan Ssembatya, all young boys, testify to the brutality of the process. Two were castrated, somehow managing to survive the ordeal, one of them bears a huge scar across his neck where his assailants attempted to bleed him out. One regained consciousness next to the decapitated body of his sister. All three children are now looked after by the Kyampisi Childcare Ministry, the only dedicated organisation in Uganda which cares for child sacrifice survivors. Pastor Peter Sewakiryanga has dedicated his life to helping protect these children and to eradicate the phenomenon. 

Sadly Uganda has been exporting this cultural practice out into world. Since 2007 authorities in the UK have known of children smuggled into the country for the purpose of blood sacrifice. The BBC obtained the figure of 400 children in 2011, roughly equivalent to two children a week every year being brought into Britain. Sometimes they are killed, often they are bled to make bespoke potions or healing charms for customers. The network of contacts running from Kampala to London is well organised and capable of moving children quickly from Uganda on request. 

India

Stepping up from Uganda, India might be the epicentre for human sacrifice in today’s world. More specifically, the regions of northern India like Uttar Pradesh have a long history of human sacrifice. The modern apparatus of ritual killings here is obviously underground and illegal, but both the numbers of deaths and the shocking kinds of violence that are inflicted on victims makes it an institution of a sort. A quick list of some of the biggest cases in recent years highlights the scale of the problem:

  • A man in Odisha state beheaded his 12 year old sister to appease the Hindu goddess of war Durga

  • A man in Andhra Pradesh state kidnapped and beheaded a four year old boy in honour of the goddess Kali, seeking ‘divine powers’

  • A group kidnapped and tortured to death a six year old boy in Maharashtra state. The boy had needles inserted into his eyes, a hole in his skull from a cordless drill and his throat slit.

  • A pregnant woman in Bihar conspired with a ‘sorcerer’ to have an eight year old girl killed, her blood and eyes made into an amulet to protect her unborn child

  • A woman in Uttar Pradesh kidnapped and mutilated a three year old boy, cutting off his nose, ears and hands during a protection ritual in which he bled to death

  • In Assam, two brothers sacrificed their children in order to receive divine guidance to buried treasure

  • A man in Madhya Pradesh beheaded his wife in front of his children in order to appease the gods

Cases like this abound in India, particularly in rural and poor parts of the country, where healthcare is non existent and a long tradition of human sacrifice has persisted. India has only recently begun to take these deaths seriously, with the National Crime Records Bureau starting to record sacrificial deaths in 2014 (51 cases between 2014-16) and the creation of the ‘Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act’, in 2013. This bill specifically targets practitioners and con-men who make use of magical powers and encourage violence and degradation towards others. The bill outlaws such practices as:

  • “Assault, torture, forced ingestion of human excreta, forced sexual acts, branding etc. on the pretext of exorcising ghosts from an allegedly possessed person”

  • “Claiming to be related to a person from a previous incarnation and coaxing them to sexual acts, and claiming to have supernatural power to cure an impotent woman and having sexual relation with the woman”

A common denominator in these cases is the presence or encouragement of a ‘holy man’ or ‘sorcerer’. Note in the bill’s full title above the word ‘Aghori’. The word refers to an esoteric and largely shunned religious practice, an offshoot of Shaivism, which look to break the cycle of reincarnation by engaging in highly taboo and unorthodox acts. Aghoris seek out dead bodies, using human skulls to drink alcohol or burn cannabis. They may eat rotting flesh, faeces and drink urine, smear human ashes across their faces and meditate sat on top of corpses. The relationship between Aghori and Tantra is complex, but many articles and interviews surrounding human sacrifice talk of a Tantrik or an Aghori Tantrik, who either performed or suggested that a person needed to be sacrificed. An article from the Irish Times discussed the Kamakhya temple in Assam, where monks, including Aghori Tantric priests, vowed to end the practice of human sacrifice. While the majority of Tantric priests have been publicly appalled at the murders which happen in their name, clearly a small minority are devoted to the older rituals and continue to suggest to the desperate and the unhinged that killing a child is their only option.

India has attempted to crack down on this phenomenon and the 2013 Bill has directly influenced a similar 2020 law in Uganda, titled ‘The Prevention and Prohibition of Human Sacrifice Bill’, which makes human sacrifice a capital or lifelong imprisonment offence. How effective either will be remains to be seen.

Some final thoughts

Researching this article was a journey into some very disturbing and unpleasant realities and many cases didn’t make the final edit. It struck me that the act of killing a child in a ritual manner seems so barbaric to the modern mind, and yet has persisted in almost all cultures across all of human history. Something about the innocence and the uncorrupted nature of an infant or a child presents them as a worthy offering to whatever may control the fate of a people’s life. Untarnished by the world, they seem more spiritually charged and at one with the deeper forces of the cosmos. The Aghori refer to the propensity for children to play in the dirt and in filth without shame, and see this innocence about societies rules as an enlightened state. Since children come into the world with less preconceptions and with less inhibitions about human behaviour and social norms, they are a target for any line of thought which sees society, civilisation, modernity as a force which disfigures that purity. Ideologies and religions of all stripes have viewed children as a plastic force, one which can be moulded into an ideal type. The fact that in parts of the world, the oldest type of sacrifice to an ideal future still continues should be a sobering reminder that human nature is not easily changed.