Sleep has long left this remote corner of South Africa: eleven people have been murdered here in a year, about one a month, with clockwork regularity, earning the hamlet of 3,000 souls the ominous nickname of village of death.
• Read also: Victims without a second chance
The crimes take place after dark. In Zingqolweni, in the south-east of the country, the sun sinks behind the line of the green mountains as soon as 6 p.m. No electricity in the dirt streets, the village is then plunged into thick darkness.
That day, Nobongile Fihla, 50, returned from the cemetery. His mother is one of the first victims. She was killed in May 2021.
“I found his body here, near the door. She was lying in a pool of blood,” she told AFP. Her aunt who shared the modest thatched-roof house was killed the same night, stabbed.
Nobody saw anything, heard anything. In this rural Xhosa-speaking country, more than three hours' drive from the first town, the houses are far apart. All the victims are elderly, the majority are women, most lived alone.
The eleven victims received multiple stab wounds. Some also had their throats cut. “They blew to death,” a police source who participated in the investigation told AFP.
In police memory, this is the first case of this type. South Africa, one of the most violent countries in the world, has one homicide every twenty minutes. “But serial murders of elderly people, no. It's unheard of," says the source.
Six men have recently been arrested. Their trial is due to begin in June. According to local police, it was a series of burglaries that went wrong.
But for the local official Gcinikaya Koki, 64, the investigators, who found no other clue than a piece of clothing, are on the wrong track. People are not rich here, many live on welfare.
The houses were returned, but no valuables were taken.
"Money was found after the murders, so what did they want?"
The idea that it is the work of a serial killer haunts people's minds. And continue to sow terror. Some fled the village. Women gathered at night to sleep together.
A police team specializing in serial crimes visited the scene several times. A single modus operandi, regular murders committed at the beginning of each month, no obvious trace of a villainous motive: no doubt, for them it is one and the same man.
Rather young, strong enough to get the better of his victims, probably from around and harboring a hatred for old people. “He knew who lives there. And who lives alone, ”says an investigator.
Shelling corn on a stool in front of her house lost in the middle of the fields, Nontukunina Mbenyana, 82, recounts the fear. "If my turn comes, I'm ready," she says. “I will die at home”.
Young people burned alive or hanged
For many months, the authorities remained silent on the case. At the end of their tether, some decided to take the law into their own hands: at the end of last year, seven young men, between the ages of 21 and 27, were found dead. Suspected of being behind the crimes, they were burned alive or hanged in a nearby forest.
Twelve men were arrested for these murders, then released for lack of evidence. The investigation continues. In the village, it's omerta. "Nothing happened here," says a man with clenched jaws to AFP, rushing into his pick-up.
Lately the macabre series has stopped dead and the mystery remains intact. Reinforced police surveillance and media attention were able to deter the murderer “for a time”, estimates the investigator.
“Sometimes serial killers whose actions are beginning to come to light change scope. We may meet him again elsewhere..."