By SHARON LaFRANIERE
Published: November 15, 2007
Domingos Pedro was only 12 years old when his father died.
The passing was sudden; the cause was a mystery to doctors. But
not to Domingoss relatives.
They gathered that afternoon in Domingoss mud-clay house, he said, seized him and bound his legs with rope. They tossed the rope over the houses rafters and hoisted him up until he was suspended headfirst 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 neighborhoods traditional leader, said seven or eight captors 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 toward someone accused of witchcraft. There are lots of such cases.
Mr. Bulio is right. In parts of Angola, Congo and the Congo Republic, a surprising number of children are accused of being witches, and then are beaten, abused or abandoned. Child advocates estimate that thousands of children living in the streets of Kinshasa, Congos 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. A report last year by the governments National Institute for the Child and the United Nations Childrens Fund described the number of children said to be witches as massive.
The notion of child witches is not new here. It is a common belief in Angolas dominant Bantu culture that witches can communicate with the world of the dead and usurp or eat the life force of others, bringing their victims misfortune, illness and death. 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, while leaving other families intact but too destitute to feed themselves.
The witches situation started when fathers became unable to care for the children, said Ana Silva, who is in charge of child protection for the childrens 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 the capital, Luanda.
Two recent cases horrified officials there. In June, Ms. 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 sons stomach because he feared the boy was a witch, she said.
Angolas government has campaigned since 2000 to dispel notions about child witches, Ms. 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 police officers, teachers, religious leaders that violence against children is never justified.
The Angolan city of Mbanza Congo, just 50 miles from the border with 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 charitable organization, rounded up 432 street children and reunited 380 of them with relatives, the witchcraft report stated.
Eleven fundamentalist churches were shut down because of reports of child exploitation and abuse. Eight Congolese pastors were deported. Villages formed committees to monitor childrens rights. The authorities say the number of children who are abused or living on the streets dropped drastically.
Uige, about 100 miles to the south of Mbanza Congo, is another story. Surrounded by lush green hills, it is a cluster of mud-clay settlements around crumbling shops pockmarked by bullet holes. In this region, said Bishop Emilio Sumbelelo of St. Josephs Catholic Church, persecution of children is rising.
It is very, very, very common in the villages, he said. We know that some children have been killed.
His church runs the towns only sanctuary for children victimized as witches, a shelter barely bigger than a three-car garage. Thirty-two boys, including Domingos, occupy bunk beds stacked a foot apart, their few clothes stashed in boxes underneath. No shelter exists for girls.
Since July, all newcomers have been turned away. Children come here to ask for protection, but we have no space, the bishop said. To date, we have not found any special way to fight against this phenomenon.
Many boys describe pasts of abuse, rejection and fear. Saldanha David Gomes, 18, who lived with his aunt until he was 12, said she turned on him after her 3-year-old daughter fell ill and died.
After, he said, his aunt refused to feed him and bound his hands and feet each night, fearing that he would take another victim.
A neighbor finally warned him to flee. I am not a witch, and I was not a witch, Saldanha said. But I had to run away because they were threatening to kill me.
Afonso García, 6, took the shelters last empty cot in July. I came here on my own because my father doesnt like me and I was not eating every day, he said matter-of-factly.
After Afonsos mother died three years ago, he moved in with his father. His stepmother, Antoinette Eduardo, said she began to suspect that he was a witch after neighborhood children reported that he had eaten a razor. Besides that, she said, he was getting thinner and thinner, even though he was eating well.
Under questioning, she said, Afonso admitted that a male relative had visited him in his dreams, demanding that he kill a family member. Afonso denies ever confessing to witchcraft.
What unfolded next is typical of many cases here. Afonsos relatives turned to a traditional healer for a cure.
The healer, João Ginga, 30, wears a fur-collared leather jacket and works out of what he calls a hospital a cramped mud-walled room. If someone has a bad spirit, I can tell, he said one recent morning as clients waited on a bench. We treat more than a thousand cases a year.
With such a busy trade, Mr. Ginga said, he could not remember Afonsos case. Afonsos aunt, Isabella Armando, said her family gave Mr. Ginga $270 in cash, candles, perfume and baby powder to treat Alfonso.
Mr. Ginga performed some rituals, put a substance in Afonsos eyes that made him sob in pain and pronounced him cured, she said. But Afonsos father and stepmother, the only relatives who could afford to care for him, did not agree, and expelled him from their household.
I pitied him, and I still pity him because he was living in the streets, the stepmother explained. But we were afraid.
Mr. Ginga is hardly the only healer here who claims to cure child witches. Sivi Munzemba said she exorcised possessed children by inserting a poultice of plants into their anuses, shaving their heads and sequestering them for two weeks in her house.
Moises Samuel, director of the provincial office of the childrens institute, said he was concerned not only about traditional healers but also about a bevy of churches with soothsayers who claimed to exorcise evil spirits and drew crowds even on weekdays.
Once a soothsayer or healer brands a child a witch, child welfare specialists say, even the police often back away.
Officers kept Domingos, the boy who was suspended from a rafter, for one night at the station house, then sent him home, said Mr. Bulio, the settlements traditional leader. They never investigated Domingoss uncle, who Mr. Bulio said led the attack.
Of course it was a crime, Mr. Bulio said. But because it is witchcraft, the police do not take any responsibility.
Domingos, now 15, insisted that he said he was a witch only to save his life. But even his 32-year-old mother, Maria Pedro, disbelieves him.
Ms. Pedro is obviously fond of Domingos, her oldest child. She beams over his academic progress and worries about further attacks by his relatives, should he leave the shelter.
Still, she said, she suspects that he was bewitched into murder. It must be true because he himself confessed, she said, eyeing Domingos carefully across a table in her two-bedroom house.
At that, Domingos stood up and walked swiftly from the house. Ten minutes later, he reappeared in the doorway, his face red and splotchy. Mother, from this day on, I am no longer your son, he declared fiercely.
Ms. Pedro wordlessly watched him go. I just dont know why Domingos got so angry, she said later.