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Central African Republic: Children, not witches

Laurent (name changed, back facing) is talking to a friend at Voix du Coeur, a center for vulnerable children in Bangui.
© UNICEF Central African Republic/2009/Bannor-Addae
Laurent (name changed, back facing) is talking to a friend at Voix du Coeur, a center for vulnerable children in Bangui. Voix du Coeur is supported by UNICEF.

Bangui, Central African Republic, April 2009 – Laurent  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, the youngest son fell seriously ill. “That is when it all began,” says Laurent. “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.”

Laurent is telling his story sitting on a chair in the courtyard of a UNICEF-supported centre for vulnerable children. A group of children are playing football while others play on a set of swings. “In the end, I ran away,” says Laurent with a serious look. “I had a broken arm and my head was bleeding from the blows of a machete. I’m not a witch. I don’t know what a witch is.”

New developments
This case is not unique in CAR where hundreds, by some estimates thousands, of children and elderly persons, women in particular, are accused of being witches. Belief in witchcraft is widespread in the central African region, but accusing children is a more recent development. Increasing hardship resulting from decades of armed conflict and immense poverty could be a catalyst behind the phenomenon.

Studies in neighboring countries suggest that witchcraft accusations against children, women and the elderly may be an expression of the inability of families to solve a crisis or cope with death and illness. Witchcraft also often serves to explain the incomprehensible.

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 has received the death penalty, numerous individuals – mainly children and women – have been arrested for these practices.

Many have become victims of community mob justice.

Living in fear
Laura is 15 and 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,” says Laura who decided to tell her aunt of the nightmares. “It all started shortly after I spoke to my aunt.

The suspicions began. Different 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. She plays with her feet and looks into an empty space.

Despite her young age, Laura was sentenced twice on accusations of witchcraft. She has served her sentence but now lives in the house of one of the prison guards in Mbaiki prison, in southern CAR. “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.

Boys playing football at  Voix du Coeur
© UNICEF Central African Republic/2009/Bannor-Addae
Boys playing football at Voix du Coeur.

Raising awareness
To shed light on the phenomenon and engage communities in discussions around the issue, UNICEF is co-sponsoring a documentary film on witchcraft accusations in CAR, ‘Witch Trails in the Central African Republic’. The film has been broadcast on various international TV channels and will be shown to local audiences as part of an awareness-raising initiative.

Gervais Ngovon, prosecutor at Mbaiki’s criminal court, is featured in the documentary. He is shown at work at the court where, in one session, 10 out of a total of 12 cases concern witchcraft. Hearings last all day and are a big spectacle. Community members flock to the windows and doors and fill up the inside of the court house. The accusations are fantastical, involving people who have metamorphosed into animals or thunder storms, stolen souls or flying piercing objects.

“Look, people may believe whatever they want,” says Mr. Ngovon after the court session. “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 the ones performing the law.”

But prison can be a blessing for some. “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, who usually is going to length to defend people accused of witchcraft. This is rare in CAR where the law is on the side of the accuser.

The prosecutor is hopeful that things will change, but, according to him, “it will take time.”

Hope for change
Meanwhile, Laurent and Laura, and hundreds or perhaps thousands of children and women in CAR, 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, the streets?” says Laurent. “I dream that some day I will be able to go back to my family,” he adds.

There is not much data or documentation of witchcraft accusations in CAR, but UNICEF is gathering comprehensive information on the phenomenon, to support advocacy work and help stop these serious human rights violations against women and children.

By Rebecca Bannor-Addae

 

 
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