KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — On May 26, 2016 Marguerite Oshudi, 39, gave birth to twin girls at Kisangani’s general hospital.
The mother of seven had given birth here before. But this time was different.
Five days after the twins were born she left the maternity ward to get some food from the hospital cafeteria. She was only gone for a few minutes, she says.
“I got a nasty surprise the second I returned to the maternity ward,” she says. “One of my twins was gone. Honestly, my first thought was that a nurse had taken the baby somewhere else for care, but when I asked the hospital staff for the missing baby, they said they had no idea about the baby’s whereabouts.”
More than eighteen months later, Oshudi has given up hope that her baby will be found as infant and child trafficking is on the rise in Kisangani, authorities say.
“My baby is still missing, and it always breaks my heart. Whenever I see her twin engage in giggling fit, it keeps the memory of the snatching of my other baby fresh. Sometimes gives me nightmares,” she says.
Hospital authorities and police confirm that they conducted an intense search for the missing baby. But she was never found.
“There’s still no trace of my snatched baby,” she says. “I always ask myself, who abducted my baby, and why did they do that? Where did they take the baby? Those are the nightmarish questions I still don’t know the answer to,” Oshudi says.
Child buying and selling has become a province-wide scourge here. In Kisangani, the capital of the Tshopo province, infants and children up to about age five frequently disappear from hospitals, schools, markets and even churches. Police say that the children are taken by sophisticated networks of kidnappers who sell the children to buyers from foreign countries — DRC stopped issuing exit permits for internationally adopted children in 2013.
Fortuna Buyambandi, a legal adviser in the women and child protection unit of the local police department, says that on average 3 children were reported stolen every month in 2017. Of the 36 child theft cases reported to police in 2017, 26 were returned to their families. But ten are still missing.
“We’re still on the lookout for six baby boys and four baby girls,” he says. “We’re doing everything we can to find them. We’re currently investigating four cases, and have several leads on the whereabouts of four of them.”
Baby snatchers have set up a strong kidnapping network that is providing infants and small children to wealthy Congolese families who cannot have their own children, or more commonly, to foreigners, Buyambandi says.
Jean Marie Liona, 39, the nursing lead at the Centre Médical Tosalisana, a medical center in Kisangani, says poor security conditions put babies at risk. He blames the lack of security for the recent surge in child abduction in his center and at other local hospitals.
“Time and again, we see snatchers take advantage of the moment in which the hospital and maternity setting is too quiet, and there’s no one around them, to take our babies away,” he says. “Actually, truth be told, we can’t afford effective security guards.”
André Milambo, 41, the medical director of the Hôpital Général de Référence de Mangobo, the local general hospital, says he knows child abductions are on the rise in his hospital.
“Since the beginning of this year, three babies have been taken away after birth in our hospital, and snatchers suddenly disappeared without a trace. Today, hopes of finding them have dwindled, and we’re getting into trouble with the law,” Milambo says.
The penalty for kidnapping is 20 years in prison and a fine $15,000 paid to the family, says Buyambandi. But it’s unclear if the hospital can be charged for negligence linked to the disappearance of infants in its care.
Like Oshudi, Sophie Baluma, 35, knows the pain of having an infant disappear from the hospital here.
Her baby was taken two weeks after birth while she was sleeping in the same room with her son.
“It was around 4:00 p.m. when snatchers sneaked into the ward and preyed on my newborn,” she says. “As I was sleeping with my newborn, I fell into a deep sleep, and then woke up to find that my baby was nowhere to be seen. I desperately started a frantic search.”
Months later she knows he won’t be found, she says.
But hospitals aren’t the only place where children are disappearing in Kisangani.
In the middle of a prayer vigil at her local church Ange Mungu, 29, says a woman in the crowd nabbed her six-month-old son.
“As we were gathered in the church praying together, a woman disguised as one of us, sitting next to me, nabbed my child, and then stole away,” she says.
But unlike with the infants, who police say are more difficult to find than children, Mungu’s son was found within days in Isangi, 132 kilometers (82 miles) from Kisangani.
Local authorities are concerned with the rise of child abductions in Kisangani, Buyambandi, of the protection unit, says. He says they are looking into placing officers in new strategic locations, like hospital exits, churches and markets to keep watch for abductions.
Authorities are also calling on mothers to keep an extra watchful eye on newborns while in the city’s hospitals.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.