BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo – After her mother married for a second time, Aline Kabila felt her life would be better. But in this war-ravaged nation, where poverty and superstitions are plentiful, her stepfamily saw her as a curse: another mouth to feed, another body to clothe.
So they branded the 11-year-old girl a witch. They starved her. They beat her. And when Aline’s half-brother fell deathly ill, the family said she had cast a spell on him.
That’s when they decided to get rid of the demons that they thought were inside her. Her step-uncle poured acid over her head, face and right arm. He almost killed her.
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Across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thousands of girls and boys, as young as 4 years old, are accused by their families of practicing witchcraft. They are abused, abandoned and, in most cases, scarred for life.
It’s the latest addition to a long list of atrocities committed against children in this forgotten 5-year-old civil war.
“They tried to make me swallow the acid,” said Kabila, now 13. She is softvoiced and so shy that she won’t look you in the eyes. Moments later, she said, “I’m not a witch.”
In a society that still believes that evil spirits bring misfortune, children are easy to blame for lost jobs, failed crops and other economic and personal problems. But two factors are contributing to the growth of the problem: the disruption of traditional family life caused by the ongoing war and the surge in revivalist churches whose preachers rail against Satan and witches as the causes of all woes.
Families “can’t pay for tuitions or medicines,” said Sister Natalina, an Italian nun who runs Eckabana House, a shelter for children accused of being witches in the southeastern town of Bukavu. “So they have to look for a way to escape their responsibility and to find a justification for their predicament.”
In some cases, she said, children have been branded witches simply for playfully talking to a strip of wood or for having bad dreams.
There is no tally of the number of children accused of being witches. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that at least 60 percent of the children in its shelters in the capital, Kinshasa, face the accusations.
“Nearly everywhere in the country you’ll find children accused of witchcraft,” said Trish Hiddleston, a UNICEF child protection officer. “It’s growing more and faster in some areas, especially urban ones.”
Most cases arise from families in which the mother or father remarries and takes the child into a new family setting, aid workers say.
Once accused, the children often endure painful exorcisms by fiery revivalist preachers who force them to swallow gasoline, bitter herbs or small fish so that they will vomit their “evils.” Or they are forced from their homes onto the streets, where they are exploited, raped or killed.
The lucky ones find their way to shelters, though some are so psychologically battered that they believe they possess magical powers. Sister Natalina recalled one case in which a child declared he was so powerful he could eat people.
“It makes them feel important because they are rejected so much,” the nun said.
Many of the children struggle to explain why relatives who they thought loved them ended up discarding them.
“Maybe I was too mischievous,” said Bibishe Okenge, 15, a girl with sapling-sized arms and big, round eyes that welled up with tears.
Okenge’s plight is typical. Her father abandoned her. When her mother died of tuberculosis in 1999, she went to live with her siblings. In June, one of her sisters caught typhoid and checked into the hospital. There, a revivalist preacher making the rounds prayed for her recovery.
Then he said: “Your sister is coming after you.”
The preacher’s words were enough to sway Okenge’s relatives. They convened a meeting of the entire extended family.
“The whole family asked me to accept that I was a witch,” Okenge said. “I kept refusing. … I was asked, who is my witchcraft teacher?”
The night of the meeting, she said, she was beaten and forced to sleep in the living room. Her sisters locked their bedroom doors. Four days later, they kicked her out of the house. She went to stay at a neighbor’s. Then her hospitalized sister died. The nervous neighbor kicked Okenge out.
After a few days on Bukavu’s muddy streets, she arrived on the doorstep of Eckabana House.
That was four months ago. No relative has tried to trace her. Of all her suffering, that hurts the most.
In October, the country’s new transitional government vowed to tackle the plight of children accused of being witches. In Bukavu, Jean Muvishemba, the town’s top child protection police officer, said that at least four people have been arrested this year for abusing children accused of witchcraft. At least 30 of the children have been taken from their families and placed in shelters.
But this is just the tip of the problem, he said. Most cases are never reported.
Kabila’s step-uncle never spent a day in jail. Before he could force her to drink the acid, neighbors called the police. They took her to the hospital to treat her wounds. While she was there, her half-brother died.
Kabila’s mother visited her daughter and wanted to take her home. But her stepfather threatened to kill Kabila if she returned. So she joined the ranks of Bukavu’s street children until a caring woman brought her to Eckabana House.
Today, Kabila is attending school and learning how to sew.