Children tortured as witches in Angola

Children tortured as witches in Angola
Published:Nov 26, 2007


DEVIL’S DISCIPLE? Afonso Garcia, 6, at the Saint Joseph’s Children’s Centre, in Uige, northern Angola, where the Catholic church runs the town’s only sanctuary for children victimised as witches. Many children accused of witchcraft are abandoned by their families Pictures: NEW YORK TIMES

TOUGH LIFE: Domingos Pedro, 15, left, and his brother during a visit home, near the Saint Joseph’s Children’s Centre

‘The situation started when fathers became unable to care for the children’

Domingos Pedro was only 12 when his father died. The passing was sudden; the cause was a mystery to doctors in Uige, Angola.

But not to Domingos’s relatives.

They gathered that afternoon in Domingos’s mud-clay house, he said, seized him and bound his legs with rope. They tossed the rope over the house’s rafters and hoisted him up until he was suspended headdown over the hard dirt floor. Then they told him they would cut the rope if he did not confess to murdering his father.

“They were yelling, ‘Witch! Witch!’” Domingos recalled, tears rolling down his face. “There were so many people all shouting at me at the same time.”

Terrified, Domingos told them what they wanted to hear but his relatives were not appeased.

Ferraz Bulio, the neighbourhood’s traditional leader, said seven or eight villagers were dragging Domingos down a dirt path to the river, apparently to drown him, when he intervened.

“They were slapping him and punching him,” he said. “This is the way people react towards someone accused of witchcraft. There are lots of such cases.”

Bulio is right. In parts of Angola, Congo and the DRC, a surprising number of children are accused of being witches and beaten, abused or abandoned.

Child advocates estimate that thousands of children living in the streets of Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, have been accused of witchcraft and cast out by their families, often as a rationale for not having to feed or care for them.

The officials in one northern Angolan town identified 432 street children who had been abandoned or abused after being called witches.

The notion of child witches is not new here. It is a common belief in Angola’s dominant Bantu culture . Adult witches are said to bewitch children by giving them food, then forcing them to reciprocate by sacrificing a family member.

But officials attribute the surge in persecutions of children to war — 27 years in Angola, ending in 2002, and near constant strife in Congo. The conflicts orphaned many children; other families were left intact but destitute and unable to feed themselves.

“The ‘witch’ situation started when fathers became unable to care for their children,” said Ana Silva, who is in charge of child protection for the children’s institute.

“So they started seeking any justification to expel them from the family.”

Since then, she said, the phenomenon has followed poor migrants from the northern Angolan provinces of Uige and Zaire to the slums of Luanda.

Two recent cases horrified officials. In June, Silva said, a Luanda mother blinded her 14- year-old daughter with bleach to try to rid her of evil visions. In August, a father injected battery acid into his 12-year-old son’s stomach because he feared the boy was a witch, she said.

Angola’s government has campaigned since 2000 to dispel notions about child witches, Silva said, but progress comes slowly.

“We cannot change the belief that witches exist,” she said. “Even the professional workers believe that witches exist.”

Instead, her institute is trying to teach authority figures — the police, teachers, religious leaders — that violence against children is never justified.

The Angolan city of Mbanza Congo has blazed a trail. After a child accused of witchcraft was stabbed to death in 2000, provincial officials and Save the Children, the global charity, rounded up 432 street children and reunited 380 of them with their relatives.

Villages formed committees to monitor children’s rights. The authorities say the number of children who are abused or living on the streets dropped drastically.

Uige is another story . In this region, said Bishop Emilio Sumbelelo, of St Joseph’s Catholic Church, persecution of children is rising.

“ We know that some children have been killed.”

His church runs the town’s only sanctuary for children victimised as witches, a shelter barely bigger than a three-car garage. Thirty- two boys, including Domingos, occupy bunks stacked a foot apart. There is no shelter for girls .

Afonso García, 6, took the shelter’s last empty cot in July.

“I came here on my own because my father doesn’t like me and I was not eating every day.”

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