Sisters in Central Africa shield girls singled out as 'witches'

Washing hangs on the line in the inner courtyard of the convent. The girls, sheltered by the nuns, are responsible for doing their own laundry. (GSR photo / Inna Lazareva)

Across the street from helmeted snipers poised at the ready, next to sandbag-walled barracks in downtown Bangui, the unassuming house behind tall metal gates seems to be the last place where you'd expect to find a group of devout nuns. But this is no ordinary convent, and the Central African Republic is by no means an ordinary place.

Here, six Missionaries of Charity nuns, some hailing from as far away as Poland and India, run an orphanage for about 30 young girls up to the age of 18 who find themselves homeless and on the street. But not all girls here are strictly orphans — in some cases, the girls' parents are alive and well, and some don't even live far away. These girls can't return home, however, because they have run away — or were chased away after they were accused of being witches.

On the second floor of the convent, above the clotheslines of colorful wash drying in the playground, Maxine, a wide-eyed 9-year-old wearing a pale blue dress, is shyly dancing with her friends, waving her arms as if to imitate the wings of an angel as she sings: "Ave Maria, Ave Maria." Here, in a gaggle of girls, you would never be able to tell what she had been through — until she comes close and tilts her head forward to reveal the deep, thick curling scars on the back of her neck and head, snaking down her shoulders and across her back.

"It was the mother who delivered her to be killed," says Sister Mary, a soft-spoken nun originally from Tanzania who explains that her order (known as the Mother Teresa sisters) prefers not to reveal the identities of individual sisters. "She said she was a witch," she explains, saying that Maxine's mother asked a fighter from the anti-Balaka armed militia to attack her daughter with a machete in order to destroy the bad spirits she thought had completely taken over the girl. "She paid them to kill her," Sister Mary says.

Superstitions concerning witchcraft and the supernatural are to be found in communities all over the world — yet the significance accorded to it in the Central African Republic is "at epidemic proportions," writes Roland Marchal in Making Sense of the Central African Republic, a collection of essays edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard. Marchal is a senior research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and a specialist on conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.

Far from just remaining on the pages of fairy tales, evil spirits and malevolent creatures are taken seriously by some in a country where witchcraft is considered a very real criminal offense and is included in the country's penal code. Many, the vast proportion of them women and children, have been arrested on such grounds. In cases where the "witch" is accused of homicide, she may be executed. "Every single day someone is killed in CAR for having perpetrated witchcraft," Marchal writes.

A sense of "spiritual insecurity" is one explanation posited by anthropologists as to what fuels this trend. Marchal cites a description of the phenomenon in Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa by Adam Ashforth: "[It is] a sense of unease arising from the conditions of knowing that invisible forces are acting upon one's life, but not knowing what they are and how to relate to them." Marchal amplifies, sorcery "can be better understood as an attempt to make sense of injustice and insecurity in daily life."

There's been plenty of injustice and insecurity in the country in recent years.

In 2013, mass violence erupted when the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels, claiming to represent the country's aggrieved Muslim minority, toppled the government, unleashing waves of killings and destruction that rippled across the country. In revenge, a rival Christian-animist militia, known as the anti-Balaka, began a campaign of killings, rapes and looting. As hundreds of thousands were displaced and lost their homes and as poverty soared in a country already ranked as one of the poorest in the world, superstition gained in importance. Fighters would wear "magical" amulets in a bid to make themselves "invisible" and use drugs in order to make them feel invincible.

According to a 2015 U.N. report, leaders of the predominantly Christian and animist anti-Balaka militia propagated "witch-burning" campaigns that took place between December 2014 and early 2015. Victims tethered to wooden stakes were burned alive as they were lowered into the flames. Others were buried alive. Some of the perpetrators made a profit by selling the victims a chance to escape.

Until recently, with a new president at the helm and a 13,000-strong international peacekeeping mission in the country, the conflict ​appeared to have been sub​sid​ing​, but in October violence spiked once again, when at least 37 people were killed in raids by the Seleka rebels in the town of Kaga-Bandoro. As a result, more than 20,000 people, some of whom already were displaced by the fighting, were forced to flee to seek shelter.

The witch hunts continue, targeting particularly those deemed most vulnerable. According to a December 2015 report by Journalists Network for Human Rights in the CAR, children living in the displaced persons' camp next to the runway of Bangui airport were attacked on suspicion of being witches. This year, Camille Mandaba, a neighborhood chief of Bangui's Votongbo quarter, announced that at least 40 presumed witches have been exorcised in this part of town.

Such instances are not uncommon and are not only limited to girls, says Beatrice Epaye, a former government minister who now runs Fondation Voix Du Coeur, a shelter and a support center for homeless and abandoned children in Bangui.

"They say it's usually the girls who are accused of being witches. But things have changed," she says. "I see a lot of boys who are accused of witchcraft."

All this stems from "the crisis, the poverty. People can't take care of themselves. People die — and others hold the evil spirits as responsible."

About 30 homeless girls, some of whom have been shunned and accused of witchcraft, sleep in Missionaries of Charity dormitories like this one in Bangui, Central African Republic. (GSR photo / Inna Lazareva)

Moreover, Epaye notes, "the crisis takes its toll on the children psychologically. They start to behave strangely — like many of the adults do, too." Other times, it's something else that triggers the suspicion in communities already stretched to their limits. She cited the example of a person with a fever from malaria having delusions and saying strange things. "The people nearby, who have no medication to give him to lessen the fever, believe that he's been struck by witchcraft and that someone wants to kill him."

The problem is widespread to the point that supernatural explanations are sometimes attributed to people who are doing things to improve their standard of living. "Even in the countryside, when you managed to cultivate a big field, there are some who say that, in the night, you must have killed people in order to help you better cultivate your field," Epaye says.

She also blames "the new churches, which have sprung up in various quarters," for attributing many events to the supernatural.

"Whenever someone is sick, [they] accuse the children or the elderly people — and it's always the fragile, the vulnerable — of being a witch. The pastor comes to exorcise the people. Many children we've welcomed here [in the Fondation Voix Du Coeur] were sometimes beaten because people believed them to be witches."

Maxine's life was saved by pure luck. A passerby saw the girl flung in the bushes, bleeding. He rushed her to the hospital and alerted the sisters, who took her in. But the road to recovery is long.

Night terrors

During the daytime in the convent, the girls follow a strict routine. Waking up at the crack of dawn, they sing prayers at 5 a.m. before going off to school. "These girls, they are very clever, they're intelligent, in school they do very well. We also teach them something — drawing, dancing, singing," explains Sister Mary.

Upon coming back, they pray before meals and do household tasks such as washing their clothes, tidying up and helping to water plants in the garden. "They even braid each other's hair — there's hair everywhere!" said Sister Mary.

But it is at night that the troubles begin. One of the problems, says Sister Mary, is that some of the girls have come to believe they really are witches.

"They believe it all. They say, 'I did this, I ate people, I drank human blood, I've eaten human flesh.'"

At night, there are screams, tears and cries, as the girls suffer from nightmares or try to frighten one another in a bid to assert dominance. "A child who is accused of being a witch will sometimes say, 'I will show you, I will do something to you.' Sometimes they say they will kill," says Sister Mary. "It's hard to hear."

When asked if the experiences are frightening, Sister Mary is adamant: "I'm not scared. I am with Jesus."

"At those moments, the only thing to do is to try and calm them down, and pray with them."

This is a phenomenon that is all too familiar to Epaye.

"When a child is accused of being a witch, they accept it! And if a child manages to make an adult scared, he or she will continue to try and do so in order to have the adult tremble and shake in front of them. Therefore, people think they are real witches," she says.

Murals painted on the inner walls of the convent show images of Mother Teresa and Jesus. (GSR photo / Inna Lazareva)

Epaye gives the example of one girl who insisted that every night she turns into a cockroach. "We told her, 'OK, if you're going to become a cockroach in the night, we'll just have to spray you with insecticide. . . .'"

Through such empty threats, says Epaye, the children are forced to come clean. "They say, 'Oh no, maman, not me.' They say, 'People say I'm a witch, so I need to scare them.'"

The struggle for such dominance and power comes from a deep craving for love, Sister Mary explains, due to being rejected by the family and also accused of being a witch. "They are traumatized."

"They fight for our love. Sometimes I feel I want to tear myself into pieces — I put one on this leg, the other on that leg, and then there are more coming to see who will be the first to hold my hand."

Such a craving makes the girls vulnerable [in the outside world]. "It's easy [for them] to be cheated. If you show them a bit of love, they will follow you," Sister Mary says.

Trained therapists — and the money to pay for them — are in short supply in the CAR, Epaye says.

According to a 2015 study by Save the Children, almost two-thirds of school-aged children are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the violence they have seen or experienced during the conflict.

"Close to three-quarters of the children, aged between 5 and 16, are said to have directly witnessed beatings, killings, artillery fire or machete attacks on either their own relatives or members of their community during what is now 29 months of violence and suffering," says René Yetamasso, program quality director at Save the Children in CAR. Everyone involved in this crisis is traumatized to some degree​, says Epaye​.

The garden inside the Missionaries of Charity convent in Bangui, where the girls help the sisters with watering the plants. (GSR photo / Inna Lazareva)

The hope of Emmanuel

The ongoing instability in the CAR makes it difficult for anyone to be optimistic about the future — but Epaye says they've had some success in helping children accused of witchcraft.

She cites the example of Emmanuel, who was just 4 years old when he was attacked by villagers who believed he was a witch. The rumors started when a woman died near where Emmanuel used to play. "The people started talking about Emmanuel, noting that he was always playing near her and other women​ ​who used to sit on the ground, exhausted," ​sa​ys Epaye.​ ​"In fact, according to the explanation that emerged later, the woman who died was sick with AIDS."

​But when the villagers gathered around Emmanuel and asked the child where he got his magic powers, ​the 4-year-old didn't argue to the contrary.

He told the villagers, "[I got them] ​from my daddy,​" says Sister Therese, originally from France, who knows Emmanuel well through her work with Epaye and others.​ That enraged the villagers who turned on the boy's father, who in turn "took a knife in order to kill Emmanuel. He still has a small scar on his head," Epaye says. A policeman intervened just in time.

Luckily, a Dominican order of nuns in Bimbo, a town about 15 miles from Bangui, heard about the young boy languishing in a police cell and took him with them. He stayed with them for nine years before coming to Voix du Coeur. Ten years since his rescue, Emmanuel is flourishing at school, and the sisters have great hopes for him. "He has learned to speak Italian, he has learned to play the piano, and he has learned to draw very well," Epaye says proudly.

Though such cases are few and far between, "it's the drops of water that make the ocean," says Epaye. "The crisis had an impact not only on the children but on the whole population.

"What do you do for a whole population that is traumatized?"

[Inna Lazareva is a freelance journalist based in Yaoundé, Cameroon. She was a 2016 fellow with the Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative of the International Women's Media Foundation.]

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