Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Angolan Children Being Tortured As Witches

Families in rural Angola are accusing their children of witchcraft and then abusing, abandoning and sometimes killing them, the Chicago Tribune reported Sunday.

Human rights workers in the war-ravaged country say they are baffled by the upswing in both the number and viciousness of attacks against accused child sorcerers, calling it one of the most disturbing outbreaks of domestic violence in Africa in recent years.

"Many of the thousands of street children across Angola are probably victims of this trend," said Matondo Alexandre, a child-protection expert with UNICEF in Angola.

"This is something new to us," he added. "In African culture, it is usually the older people who are accused of practicing witchcraft. Now we're even seeing cases popping up involving babies."

According to rights advocates, children as young as 5 have been raped, stoned to death, hanged and drowned in rivers after accusations of sorcery are leveled against them.

There is no easy explanation for the surge in witchcraft fears, with some experts citing the recent proliferation of evangelical churches in Angola or the spread of black magic from neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the phenomenon of child sorcerers has also taken root.

Most experts agree, however, that Angola's 27-year conflict that ended barely two years ago has thrust the country into a post-trauma situation, destroying its social fabric and parental bonds.

"Witchcraft fears have broken out in many societies during times of distress," said Francisco de Mata Mourisca, the Roman Catholic bishop of Uige, where many of the witchcraft cases have been reported. "But you have to ask yourself, why our children? The answer in Angola is simple. Because war has brutalized our families in the same way it haunted and destroyed our homes and streets."

Although the government has rarely acted against child abusers, one woman, Carolina Jorge, was imprisoned for five days after abusing her grandchildren and imprisoning them in an animal pen. She lashed out at the children, aged 10 and 7, after their parents died of an undetermined illness, possibly AIDS, according to the Tribune.

"Those children weren't normal," said Jorge. "They had a suitcase that made a singing noise. And the boy messed his bed every night. He was possessed."

A few Angolans are even exploiting the sorcery fears for profit, the Tribune says. Papa Matumona, the most powerful faith healer in Uige, runs an evangelical treatment center for child witches.

"He forces them to jump and dance for hours during the hottest part of the day" in order to cleanse them, said Leopoldina Neto, a UNICEF child-protection officer in the town. "He beats them. He puts chili powder in their eyes and drips boiling palm oil in their ears."

U.N. aid workers are launching parent education campaigns designed to halt the abuses, but their efforts are already facing significant challenges. The Tribune reports that an internationally funded study of the problem was abandoned after its chief Angolan researcher concluded that the witchcraft was real, a belief held by most police responsible for protecting child's rights (Paul Salopek, Chicago Tribune, March 28).