Sleep is something the people of Zingqolweni gave up on many months ago.
Nestled in a remote corner of South Africa, this scared village of 3,000 people has suffered a murder almost every month, occurring with clockwork regularity for a year.
The brutal series of murders earned Zingqolweni a chilling nickname: “The Village of Death”.
The 11 victims were elderly people, most of whom were women and mostly lived alone.
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They were stabbed to death in their home after dark when pitch darkness descended on a village where unpaved roads were not lit.
Nobongile Fihla, 50, confided in AFP as she returned from the cemetery.
His mother was among the first victims, killed in May 2021.
“I found my mother there, by the door, lying in a pool of blood. She had her throat cut,” Fihla told AFP.
Her aunt was later found stabbed to death in the same round thatched hut where the two sisters lived.
No one saw or heard anything.
The houses, known as rondavels, are set far apart in Zingqolweni, a Xhosa-speaking community three hours from the nearest large town in east London.
Here, the sun sets behind the verdant mountains of the Eastern Cape Province at 6:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. GMT) during the winter months.
Never in South Africa
South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world outside of a war zone, with a murder committed every 20 minutes on average.
But even the most hardened police officers were surprised by the horror of this massacre.
All the victims were brutally stabbed. Some also had their throats cut.
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“They are literally bleeding to death,” a senior police official told AFP.
“A series of murders of elderly people with a psychological motive. No, unheard of in South Africa,” said the investigator, who requested anonymity.
Six men have been arrested for the murders and their trial is due to begin in June.
Local police believe the murders are simply burglaries gone wrong.
But local official Gcinikaya Koki, 64, is among those who doubt the thieves are to blame.
“After the killings, when people were searching the house, they found the money in the house,” he said, adding that other valuables were also intact.
“Now you’re like, then, ‘What do they want from this person they killed? “”
The only clue ever found is a piece of clothing.
Fears of a serial killer on the loose swept through the village. Some fled and the women started sleeping together at night.
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code of silence
A special police unit tasked with investigating serial crimes has visited the area on several occasions.
The murders, the investigator told AFP, share characteristics that fit the story of a lone killer.
In every murder, there is a single modus operandi; murders occur regularly at the beginning of each month; and there is no evidence of a criminal motive.
The murderer must be young and strong enough to overpower his victims, according to this scenario. And given the remoteness of the village, he probably lives nearby and perhaps harbors a hatred of old people.
“The person had to know the people who lived there and who lived alone,” said the investigator.
Shelling maize on a stool outside her house, Nontukunina Mbenyana, 82, says she is scared but won’t leave.
“If they come for me, I’m ready,” she said. “I will die in my own house.”
Authorities had been silent for months about the killings, so militiamen intervened.
Seven suspects, all men between the ages of 21 and 27, were found dead. Some were burned alive, others hanged in the nearby forests.
Twelve men were arrested, then released for lack of evidence.
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So the investigation continues, amidst a code of silence in the village.
“Nothing happened here,” a man climbing into his pick-up told AFP.
Lately, the macabre crimes have stopped, deepening the mystery.
Increased police patrols and media attention may have deterred the killings “for a while”, the investigator said.
“We sometimes see serial killers walking away who are beginning to be unmasked. We can meet him elsewhere…”
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