Killings of women accused of witchcraft have increased in a troubled eastern province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to officials and rights activists.
Eight women were reportedly burned or lynched to death in three districts of South Kivu province this month.
Nelly Adidja, from the NGO Association of Women in the Media, said: “We registered 324 accusations of witchcraft during the period from June to September.”
In Kalehe district 114 cases have been recorded, including five women who were burned to death and four who were transferred to unknown destinations by so-called self-defense militias.
South Kivu is in an arc of three provinces that for years have been under the control of armed groups, many of them the legacy of regional wars that were fought a quarter of a century ago.
Bosco Muchukiwa, director and professor of sociology at the Higher Institute for Rural Development in the provincial capital of Bukavu, said the rise in witch-hunting attacks is due to a vacuum in governance.
“There is a resurgence of the phenomenon because the state has been failing in its main missions: the police and the justice system are not doing their job,” he said.
The attacks were being fueled by bajakazi – fake preachers or self-described psychics, mostly women, who lived locally and claimed to be able to detect witches, Muchukiwa said.
“It is false. They have no power, but they play on the credulity of the people they manipulate to attract more followers, increase their reputation and gain more influence in the village.”
Muhindo Cikwanine, a lawyer and expert in parliamentary law, said the solution was “to ban the prayer rooms of these charlatans.”
“In 2014, provincial legislators passed an edict prohibiting the use of popular justice in South Kivu,” he said. However, the law was never applied “and an adequate awareness campaign among the public has not been followed.”
Thadee Miderho, administrative head of the Kabare Territory, said that six murders had been recorded since the beginning of the year, mainly women over 60 who had been designated as witches by bajakazi.
Two years ago, 11 accusers were jailed for six months, he said. “They were released after promising to change professions, but some of them secretly continue as before.”
Prosecutors say it is nearly impossible to trace the people who carried out the killings. “Whenever there is a case of popular justice, the village chiefs say it was done ‘by the public’ and they don’t give any names,” Miderho said.
Shasha Rubenga, a teacher and rights activist, said he saw a witch hunt last month in Cifunzi, a village of about 2,000 people near Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
“It was around 5 in the morning on a Monday. Young men went around town with a list that had the names of 19 women over 65 who had been designated as witches by a prophetess, ”he said.
Most of the women managed to flee their homes, which were later destroyed. Others were saved by troops who fired into the air to disperse the crowd.
“But then I saw these young people grab a neighbor named Nyabadeux,” an old woman who had seven children. “They beat her, doused her with gasoline and lit her with a match,” Rubenga said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism