Elderly people in the war-torn Central African Republic are being accused of witchcraft, with fatal consequences.
Helene Ndenjia does not know how old she is, but she knows that she was accused of sorcery by her nephew. He believes that she is responsible for his mother’s – Helene’s sister’s – illness. Since the charge was formalized by the district chief, Helene lives imprisoned in the house she inherited from her father in the Bakongo district of the capital, Bangui
Bangui, Central African Republic For the past eight years, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been the theater of a brutal civil war that has left its economy in tatters, its institutions in ruins and its people traumatized.
Laurent Gomina-Pampali, a professor at the University of Bangui who has previously been the country’s minister of foreign affairs, minister of human rights and minister of justice, believes it is this disintegration of the country’s social fabric that is responsible for a growing phenomenon: witch-hunts.
Elderly people – normally women – are increasingly being accused of practicing witchcraft – and being killed for it.
Often, the accusations come from within the families of the accused.
“The accusation of witchcraft is a sentence without appeal,” explains Nadia Carine Fornel Poutou, the president of the Association des Femmes Juristes de Centrafrique, an association of female lawyers and advocates in CAR. “The Central African penal code is unable to establish what witchcraft is. Being a mystical matter, the authorities do not intervene.”
As a result, the accused have only two ways to survive such an accusation. The first is to lock themselves in their homes and hope to be forgotten about. The second is to try to be taken to prison.
In Bimbo, a women’s prison in the capital, Bangui, many of the detainees are there voluntarily; some because they are fleeing accusations of witchcraft.
But, Fornel Poutou explains, if being imprisoned helps to save them from being killed, it also exposes them to other dangers. “Someone accused of witchcraft may be a victim of violence by the prison guards and by other detainees,” she says.
Nathalie Koutou is the head of the psychiatry department at the General Hospital in Bangui and says the tens of thousands of people suffering from trauma as a result of the conflict are particularly susceptible to accusations of witchcraft. But there is little the hospital can do to help. “We’ve got just one psychiatrist for the whole country [of 4.5 million people] and the cases are increasing,” she explains.
For people like Kamer Gabriel, an elderly man accused by one of his children, there is little help available. “We are alone. They leave us alone. I have fear. I cannot even go outside of the house,” he says. “If I’m still alive it’s just because my nephews chose to live with me.”
Helene says she feels embarrassed and ashamed after being charged with witchcraft. Before the trial she used to go to church every week but she cannot go anymore. The verdict does not weigh only on her. She knows that her children and her nephews will also suffer the consequences of it and she is worried for them. UGO LUCIO BORGA/AL JAZEERA
Since Kamer Gabriel was accused of witchcraft, people in the neighborhood frequently throw things at his house. His sons have abandoned him, but his nephews have moved in with him to protect him. UGO LUCIO BORGA/AL JAZEERA
Kamer fears that he will be killed. “When I was young elders were considered wise men,” he says. “They were untouchable. Nowadays, on the contrary, young people see us as witches who are to be eliminated. And the only reason is because of our age.” UGO LUCIO BORGA/AL JAZEERA
Therese Yambissi holds a folder containing documents from the Church, in which she is described as a good Catholic. She has not been able to leave her home in Bangui since she was charged with witchcraft. She hopes that, should people in her neighbourhood try to lynch her, they will stop when she shows them the documents. Therese can no longer attend her church because of the accusations. UGO LUCIO BORGA/AL JAZEERA
“Food prices have gone up as a result of the civil war and experts believe high rates of poverty and hunger have greatly contributed to the social disintegration that has, in turn, led to accusations of witchcraft against the elderly. [Ugo Lucio Borga/Al Jazeera]”