Central African Republic

Scapegoating the most vulnerable in the Central African Republic

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Central African Republic/2009/Bannor-Addae
Laurent (back to camera) talks to a friend at Voix du Coeur, a UNICEF-supported centre for vulnerable children in Bangui, Central African Republic.

By Rebecca Bannor-Addae

BANGUI, Central African Republic, 12 May 2009 – Laurent (not his real name) was 10 years old when he was sent to live with his uncle, aunt and their two little boys in Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic (CAR). One day his cousin fell seriously ill.

“For two weeks, my uncle beat me every single day. He called me a witch. He said there was a beast living inside of me,” says Laurent.

Laurent tells his story while sitting on a chair in the courtyard of a UNICEF-supported centre for vulnerable children. “In the end, I ran away. I had a broken arm and my head was bleeding from the blows of a machete,” he said. “I’m not a witch. I don’t know what a witch is.”

Teenager sentenced twice
Laura (also a pseudonym), 15, is from a small village in southern CAR. Her parents died when she was very young, and an aunt took care of her.

“I often walked in my sleep, and I had bad dreams. Voices would tell me worrisome things, like I had to follow certain people, even eat their hearts,” Laura says, adding that she decided to tell her aunt of the nightmares.

“After I spoke to my aunt, the suspicions began,” she recalls. “People in the village accused me of things that went wrong. I was accused of causing illnesses, of deaths, of being responsible for the loss of things.”

Laura stops talking and stares into space. Despite her young age, she was sentenced twice on charges of witchcraft. She has served her sentence but now lives in the house of one of the guards in Mbaiki Prison.

“I can’t go back to my auntie’s place because people in the village don’t like me. They would beat me. They would kill me,” says Laura.

Scapegoats in hard times
Hundreds, or even thousands, of children and elderly people – women in particular – have been accused of being witches in CAR. Belief in witchcraft is widespread in the region, but accusing children is a more recent development.

Increased hardship resulting from decades of armed conflict and widespread poverty could be a catalyst behind the phenomenon. Or, as studies in neighbouring countries suggest, accusations of witchcraft may be an expression of the inability of families to solve a crisis or cope with death and illness.

But this scapegoating of the most vulnerable in society has serious consequences. In CAR, witchcraft is a criminal offense under the penal code, punishable by execution in cases where the ‘witch’ is accused of homicide. Although no one accused of witchcraft in CAR has received the death penalty, many have been arrested for these practices and the accused are often victims of mob justice.

Documentary raises awareness
There is little data to document witchcraft accusations in CAR – so UNICEF is gathering comprehensive information on the issue to support advocacy work and help stop these serious human rights violations against women and children.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Central African Republic/2009/Bannor-Addae
Boys play football at the Voix du Coeur centre for vulnerable children in Bangui.

To shed light on the problem and foster community discussion about it, UNICEF is co-sponsoring a documentary film, ‘Witch Trials in the Central African Republic’, to be shown to local audiences as part of an awareness-raising initiative.

The documentary features Gervais Ngovon, the prosecutor in the court at Mbaiki, where 10 out of a total of 12 cases during a single session concern witchcraft. The all-day hearings are a public spectacle. The accusations are fantastical, involving people who have allegedly metamorphosed into animals or thunder storms, and stolen others’ souls.

Protection against superstition
“Look, people may believe whatever they want,” says Mr. Ngovon. “The problem is that those beliefs make innocent people go to prison on the basis of an affirmation that resembles – I don’t know – a fairy tale. In this country, we have no structure for protecting the weak, and most people believe in witchcraft – including those upholding the law.”

The critics of such witch trials acknowledge that until such traditional beliefs are eradicated, the law will remain on the side of the accuser.

“I find that sometimes sending an accused child or woman to prison offers the best solution in protecting the person from mob violence, which often leads to death,” says Mr. Ngovon.

Meanwhile, Laurent and Laura live as outcasts with an uncertain future. Laurent has lived at a UNICEF-supported centre for vulnerable children in Bangui since 2006. “This is my home now. I don’t know where else to go,” he says. “I dream that some day I will be able to go back to my family.”


 

 

New enhanced search