KAMPALA, Uganda — One baby was healthy and the other cold and lifeless, a sight that horrified Michael Mubangizi and his wife, a young Ugandan couple who soon felt one of their twin babies had been swapped at Uganda's main public hospital. They rejected the dead one, saying it wasn't theirs, and a DNA test later proved they were right.
Mubangizi said the likely prospect that he won't ever be united with his missing baby, born a year and a half ago and whose whereabouts are unknown, fills him with anguish. As a court is set to hear his civil case against Mulago Hospital, officials and some activists say parents in Uganda risk losing their children in scams orchestrated by doctors and nurses who are apparently selling the babies.
Some may be colluding with childless Ugandan couples while other babies are possibly being sold to foreigners. Last week a Czech man without proper adoption papers was arrested while trying to leave Uganda with a 3-month-old baby, according to Moses Binoga, a police detective and Uganda's top anti-human trafficking official.
Details are scant and officials don't know how widespread the baby thefts are. But this year alone, at least three cases of baby theft have been reported at Mulago Hospital in Uganda's capital, Kampala, according to police spokesman Patrick Onyango. A police report released last year said there were 261 cases of child theft over a 12-month period, but that includes teenagers who are duped to go abroad for work but are forced into the sex trade. The police report did not break down the numbers.
Health officials who had been investigating a case of baby theft that occurred in 2006 announced on Aug. 13 the suspension of a doctor for his role in the alleged switching of a baby at Mulago Hospital. In that case, which is remarkably similar to Mubangizi's, a doctor named Asinja Kapuru confessed to swapping a healthy baby for a dead one after being confronted with the results of a DNA test. Police arrested and questioned the doctor Tuesday before releasing him because his case is still under investigation, according to Onyango. He said Kapuru is likely to be charged with child theft, a felony for which a seven-year jail term is prescribed.
Joel Okullo, a Ugandan doctor who led that investigation, said the case shows that some hospital workers likely "are part and parcel of the evil intention of others to steal babies" from unsuspecting parents. Okullo, who heads the Uganda Medical and Dental Practitioners Council, said hospital workers who steal babies are likely motivated by money in a country where public health professionals are poorly paid and overworked. Many have sought work abroad or opened up private practices that consume most of their time.
Enock Kusasira, a spokesman for Mulago Hospital, said the hospital's critics have seized on "a few cases" of baby theft that he insisted probably went missing due to inexperience on the part of some staff.
He blamed some of the lapses on students who do their clinical training there and insisted that the staff generally makes sure babies are correctly matched with their mothers immediately after birth through a tagging method that he called "baby labeling," in which a string with a card bearing the newborn's details is tied around its arm. He said the guidelines were not strictly enforced among the staff until late last year, when new administrators took charge.
Campaigners have long warned that a combination of poverty, corruption and weak laws has made Uganda a target for child traffickers.
Babies are likely stolen with the help of adoption agencies that then obtain genuine adoption papers for clients, said Marlon Agaba, the Uganda spokesman for an Africa-wide children's rights watchdog group known by its initials as ANPPCAN. In Uganda it's possible to obtain legal guardianship of a child in just a week, he said, a status that allows a guardian to travel with the child abroad even if the adoption process has not been completed.
"Ugandan children are being sold abroad and the government is doing nothing," he said.
But Binoga, Uganda's top anti-human trafficking official, said Ugandan police had recently become more vigilant against human traffickers and that most stolen babies likely end up in the custody of childless Ugandan women.
Mubangizi, the man who lost one of his twin daughters at Mulago Hospital in 2012, believes his baby was sold to another couple. His wife says in a court document that she is now "afraid of giving birth in hospitals."
"Every time we are thinking about where our child is," Mubangizi said. "We are thinking, 'What if she could be here playing with her twin sister?' I think that the child is alive."
A trial date in that case has not been set yet.