… five women brutally murdered in horrific shootings
THE deadly events of the 23rd of July 2018 in Ha-Mokauli, Maseru appear to have been taken straight out of one of those thriller movies that have become the hallmark of the Hollywood movie industry.
It was the stuff of a Steven Spielberg movie or even a Stephen King horror novel as the sunset and darkness slowly enveloped a generally quiet village. Fires had already been lit in every homestead as families prepared the evening meals. Children huddled close to the crackling flames for warmth in the wintry chill.
In one or more homes, grandmothers regaled their grandchildren with tales of their youthful beauty which made the young men to hold their breath. And faced with the contours, ridges and wrinkles which age has wrought on their grandmother’s faces, the grandchildren struggled to superimpose on those faces the beauty that once was and was now being recounted in the tales of a bygone era.
It was not only a bygone era of beauty, it was a bygone era of peace and respect for the sanctity of human life which had also been lost along the way.
And that day- 23 July 2018 will remain forever etched in the collective memories of the Ha-Mokauli villagers some 25 kilometres south of the capital, Maseru.
At about 6 pm on that fateful evening, the sound of gunfire sent the villagers scurrying for cover behind and below anything that could shelter them.
The loud gunshots lasted for about 30 minutes and thereafter there was an eerie silence. When the shocked villagers finally came out of their hiding places, they were met with the gruesome sight of the five bodies of women who had been gunned down in their own homes. Another woman was writhing in pain together with a two-year-old toddler who had a bullet lodged in her arm.
The gunmen had already disappeared without a trace, leaving no explanation for the trail of corpses, blood, orphaned children and broken-hearted families.
The Lesotho Times recently visited the village and to this day, it is evident that the villagers have not shaken off the gruesome events of the day when their loved ones were murdered in cold blood by the merciless killers.
In keeping with Basotho customs, the Lesotho Times crew made their first stop at the house of the village chief, Mokhalinyane Sekhonyane.
This was all the more necessary especially at a time when the villagers would be suspicious of strangers in their midst.
Dressed in blue overalls that one would associate with a car mechanic or workman, Chief Sekhonyane, who appears to be in his late 40s, trudges towards the entrance of his homestead where the Lesotho Times crew is already awaiting him.
The chief and the villagers are at loss as to what could have caused the brutal murders of the women. Some Famo musicians and their followers have been known to engage in deadly conflicts. Could it be one of those Famo killings, the chief asks rhetorically. Or could it be that these were revenge killings after the murder of a female villager a few months ago? Still, everything does not make much sense for the chief because normally such killings do not target women.
And even if he and other villagers have witnessed violence and deaths before, the latest instalment in the orgy of brutal killings is something that Chief Sekhonyane struggles to come to terms with.
“The darkness was setting in when the peace and quiet was suddenly disturbed by the sound of gunfire,” Chief Sekhonyane tells this publication.
“At first, I thought it was my iron roof being blown off by the wind but we soon realised that guns were being fired.
“I knew then that people were dying. For years now, we have had a problem of people being shot dead by unknown gunmen. I knew when I heard the gunshots that someone had been killed.”
The chief’s worst fears were confirmed when he received a phone call informing him that a villager had been killed.
Afraid for his life but saddled with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of fellow villagers, Chief Sekhonyane had to leave the shelter of his home to investigate the unfolding situation. It was then that they discovered to their horror that four more people had also been massacred. Another family had been attacked but was fortunate to escape unscathed. Another family had their car burned to a shell.
“We thought we would just be attending to one incident but four other people had been killed. In one family a mother and her 20-year-old daughter were killed, in another a woman was killed while her 21-year-old daughter was injured. Another woman was also killed and her two-year-old daughter was shot in the arm.
“I was overwhelmed and I did not know which family to attend to first. They all needed my attention. I was all over the place. Luckily the police had already arrived and were already attending to the deceased.
“The injured woman was rushed to Scott Hospital in Morija where she was referred to Tšepong (Queen ‘Mamohato Memorial Hospital).”
These are not the first violent deaths that Chief Sekhonyane and the villagers have witnessed. The orgy of violence has been going on since 2012. But no matter how many times the killings occur, there is just no getting used to them.
“I am shattered. This year alone 11 people have been shot dead. We have had this problem of gun violence since 2012. We have tried everything to stop it. We have held village gatherings to talk to our people to end this violence and surrender their weapons to police but that has not helped.
“Almost every family in this village has had their loved ones killed. It is so frustrating that more killings happen even after all the efforts we have made. I do not know what to do now,” Chief Sekhonyane says with wells forming in his eyes.
The police have patrols in the area but that is no consolation to the family of ‘Maisang Tilo whose 25-year-old granddaughter, Retšepile Tilo is one of the deceased. The 67-year-old Ms ‘Maisang Tilo was preparing supper on an open fire outside her hut when she spied two armed men who shot at her herd boy as he ran for cover. She and her son immediately hid behind their hut.
Retšepile and her daughters aged five and two were in the main house when the gunmen arrived.
“They (gunmen) approached the main house where Retšepile and the girls were sitting. There were gunshots and at that point there was no doubt in my mind that they had killed her and the children. I could hear their footsteps as they came towards us. I felt numb and conceded that it was over for us as well.
“My son tried to run but they caught him. They asked him where his older brothers were and he told them that they were away in South Africa. They let him go and left afterwards. I eventually came out of my hiding place and rushed to the room where Retšepile and children were. She (Retšepile) lay lifeless on the floor. In desperation, I shook her and called out to her to wake up. But she was gone,” Ms Tilo said.
Ms Tilo’s son, Malakia, was murdered in 2012 and after the loss of Retšepile, she says she has given up on life.
“This is the second time they have murdered my children. I do not know what they want. They killed my son who was our breadwinner and now they have come for my granddaughter who has left behind these young children,” said the grieving Ms Tilo.
She said they could not eat, clean and bath for two days after the killings and they had to call on her Maseru-based daughter to come down and help them with the household chores.
“We could not eat or clean or bath for two days. I asked my daughter to come and help because I had no energy to do anything. She then realised that the youngest girl had been injured on the arm. We took her to Scott Hospital where it was discovered that there was a bullet in her hand. However, they said they would not take it out because it was stuck in a place where it would not be harmful to her.
“We live in fear day and night. We do not know who has done this and if they are planning to attack us again. We feel better when we have visitors like you but when people leave and darkness spreads across the land, we get terrified. This is not a life. We cannot live like this.
“I have also lost hope in the police. My son was killed in 2012 and no one has been arrested to date.”
Two homesteads away from the Tilos is the Setemere household where 54-year-old ‘Mateboho Setemere was killed and her 21-year-old daughter, Malitaba Setemere, injured.
Ms Setemere’s eldest daughter, Rethabile, tells of the trauma that has affected her hospitalised sister to the extent that she has vowed never to return home.
She (Rethabile) cannot wait until her mother is buried so that she can go back to her home in Ladybrand in South Africa.
“I just want to leave this place. I can no longer stay in my parents’ house which was once a comfort zone for me. My sister says she is going to drop out of school because she can no longer live here. I understand why she wants to leave. We have to look over our shoulders everywhere we go because they might be following us. We are suspicious of strangers,” Rethabile says.
Another villager, ‘Machabise Solane (52) says she is lucky to be alive after the attackers’ bullets missed her and her children.
The multiple bullet marks on Ms Solane’s house, furniture and the shattered window are evidence that the gunmen were out for blood.
Ms Solane says she has not been able to sleep in her own house since that fateful night.
“I am scared that they will come back and kill us all. Every night I take my children and seek accommodation at my neighbours’ place. If I had anywhere else to go, I would pack my bags and take my children and leave this village.”
Her neighbour, Relebohile Tilo’s family was also attacked and her car was set alight.
Ms Tilo says she is thankful that she, her father-in-law and her two children survived the attack.
“My husband used his savings to buy a car so that we could transport our elderly father to hospital for check-ups. However, we are more thankful for the saved lives. The car is only a material object,” Ms Tilo says.
At the Montjes’ homestead, the atmosphere is also sombre on account of the fact that the 45-year-old ‘Matsepiso Montje, and her 20 year-old daughter, Ithabeleng Montje were killed on the fateful night.
Ms Montje, whose husband was killed in 2016, is survived by two children, a boy and girl aged 13 and five respectively.
Ms Montje’s mother and mother-in-law were so distraught that they even turned down an interview.
“We are afraid that we might say things that they (the killers) will not like and they might come back for us,” says Ms Montje’s mother.
‘Mamthandazo Tsemase also counts herself lucky after she came face to face with the gunmen who decided to spare her life.
Her 47-year-old mother-in-law was not so lucky and she died in a hail of bullets after the attackers broke into their house and found them hiding in one of the rooms.
The slain woman was still mourning her late husband, Makhaola Tsemase, after his brutal murder in March this year. Mr Tsemase was shot dead by unknown gunmen who are still at large.
“We were beginning to come to terms with my brother’s death and now they kill his wife. My brother’s children are now orphaned. What could we have done wrong that cannot be forgiven,” Mr Tsemase’ sister, ‘Matlotliso Lekhoaba asks.
Police spokesperson Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli says no arrests have been made and the police are still following the leads to find the killers.
“Investigations are still going on. No arrests have been made. Police officers have been deployed to keep watch on the area,” Sup Mopeli said.