Bijombo, South Kivu province. Prosecutors say it is almost impossible to track down individuals who carry out the killings. Photograph: Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty
Murders of women accused of witchcraft have surged in a troubled eastern province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to officials and rights campaigners. Eight women have reportedly been burned to death or lynched in three districts in South Kivu province this month. Nelly Adidja, of the Association of Women in the Media NGO, said: “We recorded 324 accusations of witchcraft for the June to September period.” In Kalehe district 114 cases have been recorded, including five women who were burned to death and four who were hauled away to unknown destinations by so-called self-defence militias. South Kivu lies in an arc of three provinces that for years have been in the grip of armed groups, many of them the legacy of regional wars that were fought a quarter of a century ago.
Bosco Muchukiwa, a director and professor of sociology at the Higher Institute of Rural Development in the provincial capital of Bukavu, said the surge in witch-hunt attacks stemmed from a vacuum in governance.
“There is a resurgence of the phenomenon because the state has been failing in its core missions – the police and justice system are not doing their job,” he said. The attacks were being fuelled by bajakazi – bogus preachers or self-described psychics, mostly women, who lived locally and claimed to be able to detect witches, Muchukiwa said. “It’s false. They don’t have any powers but they play on the gullibility of the people they manipulate in order to attract more followers, pump up their reputation and gain more clout in the village.” Witchcraft used as excuse for violence against older women in Tanzania Read more
Muhindo Cikwanine, a lawyer and expert in parliamentary law, said the solution was to “outlaw these charlatans’ prayer rooms”.
“In 2014, provincial lawmakers approved an edict forbidding use of mob justice in South Kivu,” he said. However, the law was never applied “and it hasn’t been followed up with a proper awareness campaign among the public”.
Thadee Miderho, an administrative chief for Kabare territory, said six killings had been recorded since the start 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 profession but some of them are secretly carrying on as before.” Prosecutors say it is almost impossible to track down individuals who carry out the killings. “Whenever there is a case of mob justice, village chiefs say it was done ‘by the public’, and do not provide 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 about 5am on a Monday. Young men were going around the village with a list that had the names of 19 women over the age of 65 who had been designated as witches by a prophetess,” he said.
Most of the women managed to flee from their homes, which were then destroyed. Others were saved by troops who fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd.
“But then I saw these youths grab hold of a neighbour whose name was Nyabadeux,” an elderly woman who had seven children. “She was beaten up, doused in petrol and set alight with a match,” Rubenga said.