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What does it take to bury five young girls of the same family whose lives were criminally cut short by fire? Outpouring of grief, sea of tears and dramatic arrest of the suspect. This is what characterised the burial of five girls killed in an arson attack in Shikalembula, Shibuyunji district yesterday. Justice, parents of the girls will feel, has been served. Shibuyunji was a community in mourning as thousands of people gathered at Shikalembula village, an arid sparsely treed area, to witness the burial of the five girls killed on Saturday night.

The five cousins – Jean Mugamya, Gertrude Mweemba, Mable Mweemba, Noria Milimo and Emely Milimo – died around 22:00 hours when a man torched the small house they were sleeping in. The youngest of the girls was only eight years old, while the oldest two were 14, latest information shows. Yesterday, the community came in their droves to express not only their grief, but anger at the cruel attack and killing of the girls primed for success. Chief Shakumbila pulled no punches as he described the attack on the girls as barbaric.

“I’m 63 years old but I have never seen such a thing,” he told the crowd. But he also admonished his people for withholding information from police. People, including pupils from Shabasonje Primary School, which the girls attended, and members of the Pathfinders – a youth wing of the Seventh Day Adventist church – had made a 300m human cordon along the road leading to the house where the memorial service was to take place. The five coffins were draped in Pathfinders’ flags and an Adventurer’s flag for the little one. A brass band led the pallbearers, selected from the youth group. As the five coffins were borne to where the people had gathered, there was wailing almost to the point of hysteria.

It was heart-breaking and one woman succumbed to emotions – she passed out. Several others, including Kanyama Member of Parliament, Elizabeth Phiri were bathed in tears. A few metres from the procession was the crime scene – a small mud house barely three metres in diameter, now charred, where the girls died. Next to the where girls were sleeping, the father of two of the girls lay sick that night, unable to save his own children as they screamed for help. Their screaming voices soon turned into muffled cries as the blaze raged. Soon, there was dead silence. According to witnesses, the arsonist had tied the door of the house to prevent the girls from escaping.

For three of the cousins, it was supposed to be a happy sleep-over. The girls had attended a church meeting earlier that day and decided to spend the night together. According Favour Mweemba, the mother of two of the girls, the girls spent the night singing joyfully. Favour is said to have prayed with the girls before they retreated to the small house. But their singing must have soon turned into horrific screams as their house became engulfed by flames. And now police are looking for the arsonist, and maybe they did not have to look far for suspects. At 13:30 hours, a white Toyota Land Cruiser pick-up slowly drove into the crowd.

Two men sat in the cabin, while one man sat in the back. A man surreptitiously walked along the slow-moving vehicle smiling. But when the vehicle reached a group of male by-standers, the man walking beside the vehicle tapped on it. It stopped. What happened next was swift. A man jumped out with an AK-47 rifle, pulled out two more rifles and handed them to his colleagues before they pounced on a man wearing a red T-shirt in movie-style. They quickly hauled him into the back of the pick-up and sped off.

The suspect, Macha Mweemba, is said to be a member of the family. A family feud over land is said to be the reason for the attack on the girls. There is a call for justice for the five innocent girls. Shabasonje Primary School head teacher Mathews Chabala said the pupils at the school are angered with what happened. “They think it is not fair that the girls’ lives were taken away in this manner,” he said. Justine Kambeu, who taught three of the girls, said the pupils were doing well in class.

Three of the girls were on bursary, supported by a nongovernmental organisation. Brenda Chipali, a grade five pupil who was in the same class as three of the girls, described them as good girls. Minister in the VicePresident’s Office Sylvia Chalikosa conveyed condolences on behalf of Government and President Edgar Lungu, calling for love within the community. “We have so much to lose if we habour hatred, especially hatred that leads us to harm others,” she said. At a mass grave a few metres from where they died, one by one, the girls’ coffins were lowered into the earth. As in their final moment, the girls

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