Emmanuel Kafe

In December last year, authorities intercepted at least 200 undocumented children who were on their way to South Africa in the company of third parties.

Parents and guardians of 92 of the minors could not be readily located and they were duly referred to the Department of Social Welfare.

According to a recent report by the chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defence, Home Affairs and Security Services, Brigadier-General Levi Mayihlome (Retired), most of the children were from Bulawayo, Harare and Chiredzi, and were destined for Johannesburg and Cape Town.

“The smuggling of children mainly into South Africa was rampant during the holidays,” the assistant regional immigration officer-in-charge of Beitbridge, Nqobile Ncube, said early this year.

As if that was not worrying enough, latest statistics from the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) show that 26 cases of kidnapping and unlawful detention were recorded in the January to March period this year.

Child kidnapping or child theft is the unauthorised removal of a minor from the custody of natural parents or legally appointed guardians.

“Most of the cases emanate from disputes between spouses/families. Several of them are resolved as the child is found; disputes end up in court to rule on custodial issues and so forth,” said ZRP national spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi.

He was, however, quick to highlight that some of the cases were being wrongly categorised.

“ . . . unlawful detention usually relates to girls who visit their boyfriends who keep them without the knowledge of parents/guardians and later turn up without explanation. However, investigations later reveal the truth and cases of sexual abuse,” he said.

Some parents are understandably living anxious over the worrying cases of child kidnapping, trafficking and forced”relocation”.

Apparently children have become the latest commodity for criminal networks who target them for exploitation.

Notwithstanding the ongoing Covid-19-induced lockdowns in most countries, child snatching syndicates are capitalising on illegal entry and exit points as border areas remain shut.

The criminals take the minors either through deceit or cohesion.

They are being kidnapped mainly for settling custody disputes, ransom and at times for ritual purposes.

Efforts to get a comment from the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage were not successful last week.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) — an intergovernmental United Nations agency that provides services and oversight around migration — says there are a number of cases of Zimbabwean parents living in neighbouring countries who pay smugglers to reunite them with their children in their adopted countries.

However, some of the cases of child smuggling and trafficking remain unknown and unreported because of the nature of the crimes, the IOM further notes.

Modus operandi

The criminals are highly organised and often ruthless.

They use blindfolds, complex and well-practiced manoeuvres with cars to block in unsuspecting victims.

In some instances, they use money or links with housemaids to commit these heinous crimes.

Men usually played a major role in kidnappings.

But the script has since changed, as some syndicates now rely on innocent-looking female co-conspirators to easily lure minors.

A Kuwadzana woman, Mrs Nyamande, was lucky to escape the pain that comes with losing her child to kidnappers.

She shudders each time she thinks of what would have been.

Her ordeal came after she separated from her husband but continued to have disputes over child custody.

What started as an ordinary day for a vegetable vendor, quickly turned nightmarish when the would-be kidnappers pounced on her six-year-old daughter.

While attending church in her neighbourhood, she received a phone call from a friend who told her of what she previously believed was unthinkable — unidentified individuals had snatched her daughter from where she was playing with other kids and drove off.

A frantic but unsuccessful door-to-door search in the crowded neighbourhood ensued.

Thereafter, Mrs Nyamande reported the case to the police.

“The news hit me hard. I could not believe it. I shook before I reported the incident to the police,” she said, adding: “I automatically suspected my husband since we were having a custody dispute over the child.”

And she was right!

Police later discovered that it was her husband that was behind the kidnapping.

A Diaspora-based businessman, who was at the centre of a recent landmark judgement on joint guardianship and custody, recently had his five-year-old child kidnapped.

The child was snatched in typical movie-style by two armed men driving an unregistered Ford Ranger at Waterfalls Shopping Centre in Harare.

Maids are also proving to be key conspirators in child kidnapping rings.

A Harare maid, Isabel Makuya, reportedly disappeared with her employer’s five-year-old son early this year.

She later dumped him in Marondera, where the child was discovered and taken to ZRP Dombotombo (Marondera).

And last year, just after the festive season, a domestic worker in Hatfield also disappeared with a two-year-old child two days into her new job.

In Bulawayo, police has since launched a manhunt for a man who allegedly kidnapped and raped a three-year-old girl in Entumbane suburb before dumping her on the outskirts of the suburb.

Similarly, a 15-year-old teenage girl from Matshobana suburb was dragged into a neighbour’s house and detained for four hours when she was on her way from extra lessons.

There were reports in February this year of a Victoria Falls man who kidnapped his neighbour’s six-year-old son and subsequently stabbed the victim’s father after he enquired about his child’s whereabouts.

But who is to blame for these growing cases?

While the police have a duty to protect citizens, children included, parents still need to be proactive in safeguarding their children’s safety.

Security expert with a local organisation, George Musamali, believes children remain a soft target for criminals, with a majority of the culprits known to them.

“Crime against children has really increased in Zimbabwe judging by stories that are making headlines in the press, and it is a worrying trend. Previously, kidnappings were prevalent outside the country and were purely for ransom,” he notes.

“We now have abductions, sexual harassment of children, not only against the girl-child but even boys. Thus, the parents should play a lead role in promoting the safety of their children.”

At least 1,2 million children are trafficked every year across the globe.