Editor’s note: This story contains graphic detail.
More than a week ago, a South African man walked into a police station with a morbid confession. He was “tired of eating human flesh,” he told police.
The officers questioned the man’s bizarre claim and noticed he gave off a rancid smell, local media reported.
Then, the man revealed the source of the stench, showing the officers a bloodied human hand and leg, a police spokeswoman told The Washington Post.
The man, who said he was a “traditional healer,” led officers to a small, beige home in the farming town of Estcourt, in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Inside the house, police found a collection of other body parts, Col. Thembeka Mbhele, a spokeswoman for the South African Police Service, told The Post.
The discovery touched off a criminal case that has attracted global attention, and led police to uncover what they suspect is a cannibalism ring. A total of five men, ages 30 to 32, have been arrested for possessing human body parts — two of them claim to be traditional healers.
A number of other families with missing or slain relatives are now wondering whether their loved ones’ deaths may have come at the hands of the alleged cannibalism ring. One local woman outside the court appearance told a local television station her nephew went missing in 2015. His body was later found mutilated. She came to the court appearance, she said, to see whether she could identify one of the suspects in connection with his death.
Mbhele said police believe the men were “working together” as part of a larger syndicate.
“We expect to arrest more,” Mbhele said, adding that the case was both shocking and unusual. “We’ve never heard of this.”
The men, South African news outlets reported, are charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder. However, it is still unclear how many people have died. Police have not yet identified the human remains.
The accused men appeared in court for a bail hearing Monday, as hundreds of locals protested outside, shouting, chanting and holding up signs that read “No to cannibalism.”
One protester held up a sign that translated as: ‘“We’re not KFC, Nandos or Chicken Licken. We’re humans, we’re not eatable,” according to a photo captured by News 24.
Mbhele declined to provide details about the human remains discovered by police, saying that police “cannot assume what the accused were doing with the body parts.”
But descriptions in South African and British news outlets paint a gruesome scene. In the home of the first man arrested, some reports say, human ears were found cooking in a pot in the home. Other body parts were stuffed in a suitcase, the BBC reported.
“It is believed they were to be served to his customers, who were told they had magic properties and would convey money, power and protection,” the BBC reported.
The man who first turned himself in to police was reportedly nicknamed “mkhonyovu,” or “corruption.” He had moved into the home about two months ago, the man’s landlord told News 24, adding that he had “no idea” about the body parts hidden inside. His neighbor told media outlets he had noticed a foul smell from the home.
South African newspaper the Sunday Times wrote that the arrests uncovered a “deep, dark secret” in the town that could extend back some time. At least three graves were desecrated in June in the surrounding area, the Sunday Times reported. It is not known whether these dug-up graves are connected to the alleged cannibalism ring.
Police have not completed DNA testing on the body parts they seized.
But one family told the BBC and local media outlets they believe the remains were those of a 25-year-old missing woman who lived about 22 miles west of Estcourt.
The mother of a 2-year-old boy was last seen July 25, relatives told the BBC and Sunday Times. She had left for the town of Pietermaritzburg, about 60 miles south of Estcourt, to visit her grandmother. She never showed up.
After police made the arrests in the case, they met with the woman’s relatives and asked them what she had been wearing the day she was last seen. The family members told them she wore black leggings, a shirt and a bag with jeans stuffed inside.
A police officer left the room and returned with an outfit that matched the family’s description, soaked in blood, relatives told the Sunday Times. The family was told a mutilated body was found east of Estcourt.
Mbhele said police could not yet confirm the identity of the body. But speaking to a local television station, she has urged families of missing people to come forward to police with DNA samples.
Residents of the surrounding villages have been swept by a wave of fear, avoiding walking on the streets after nightfall, the Sunday Times reported. The allegations have also tainted the practice of traditional healing, a prevalent source of medical care in South Africa, particularly in rural communities.
There are more than 200,000 traditional healers in the country, and traditional health providers are the first stop for South African patients in up to 80 percent of cases, according to the World Health Organization.
“No one will ever trust traditional healers after this,” Siphiwe Manana, a traditional healer at Monday’s protests, told the Sunday Times.
Another woman outside the court admitted she had previously sought medical care from one of the charged men, the Sunday Times reported. She had asked for an herbal remedy to help her 17-year-old niece, who suffers from an illness in her womb, she said.
Inside the court hearing, one of the men wept during the proceedings, local news reported. A lawyer for the men said her clients no longer wished to apply for bail.
In the days after the arrests, local politician Mthembeni Majola organized a community meeting to help residents come to terms with the gruesome allegations. Some admitted to previously consulting with the traditional healers.
“Most residents were shocked by this and now live in fear,” Majola told the BBC.
“It cannot only be one body,” Majola told the Sunday Times. “There is much more to this.”
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