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Wednesday, 22 December, 1999, 15:48 GMT
Congo witch-hunt's child victims
Congolese children are being accused of witchcraft and made scapegoats for the country's many ills. Jeremy Vine reports from Kinshasa on the gruesome business of exorcism.
There is something wrong with the maize grinder in the Mahonda household. Pandi, a father of two, drags the rusted motor out of his home to work on it for the umpteenth time this week.
After five minutes, having got nowhere with his screwdrivers and hammers, he shrugs and gives up.
"This grinder will simply not work," he says - bad news for Pandi and his partner, Kalumbu. Kinshasa is not the kind of place where helpful ironmongers stay open late to fix rusted motors.
But the continuing problems with the grinder are also potentially devastating news for their two sons. Ikomba, 8, and Luwuabisa, 10, have already been identified as the cause of the problems this poor village household is experiencing.
Their mother sums up what has gone wrong.
"First the icebox in the kitchen broke, then I was ill. I just kept being sick. No doctor could tell me what the matter was.
"Then the grinder broke down, and I had an accident in the car. Also, money went missing from the home. That was when I realised."
Realised - realised what, precisely?
"Realised that Ikomba and Luwuabisa are witches."
It is no more precise than that. Kalumbu completes the sentence with the two boys sitting either side of her, not aware of how much trouble they may be in.
This story is being repeated again and again in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the moment. The country has been badly scarred by war - first by the rebel uprising which ousted the corrupt and tyrannical President Mobutu in 1997, then by a second rebel move which is now threatening his successor, President Laurent Kabila.
He was Congo's best hope for democracy, but has not yet held an election and is suspected of pocketing state money. To call the economy a basket case does not do even half its problems justice.
People are superstitious here. They want explanations when things go wrong.
Because of the increasing hardship many children end up living with members of their extended family, and a phenomenon which experts say is unique to Congo is developing. Children are being accused of sorcery and chucked onto the streets.
The unlucky ones are murdered by their own family members before they escape. Which is why Ikomba and Luwuabisa are in such danger. For now, their parents are not completely certain of their diagnosis.
So they take them to a sect to find the real truth. It is there that the story starts to get really frightening.
The sect - run by a free-thinking Congolese Bible teacher called Prophet Onokoko - has 230 children on its books. All are accused of witchcraft.
Many have been thrown out of their family homes. All will have to undergo some kind of ritual exorcism to expunge the evil spirits.
In a small room, members of the sect crowd round the two terrified Mahonda boys, praying. Eyes closed, with an air of deep concentration, Prophet Onokoko joins in with chosen words.
"Oui!" someone shouts suddenly - confirmation, it is said, that the boys are witches (or as they call them here, enfants dits sorciers).
The Prophet's eyes open and light up. He shakes Ikomba and Luwuabisa by the hand. "Yes, yes," he grins. "It is confirmed."
'Vomit up the devil'
The procedure is simple, Prophet Onokoko explains. The boys will be made to vomit up the devil. He produces other "devils" that have been sicked up by young children: a whole prawn, a shell in the shape of a horn, and even - kept in a blue bucket which he lifts with a flourish - two barbel fish.
"These came out of the mouths of children who had spirits," he tells us. "We had a girl here who vomited a large prawn. When it came out, she was at peace."
The we meet the girl, Angella, who is busy hanging washing on a line. She says she is 10 years old. Then she tells how she was treated when her parents decided their bad luck was being caused by her sorcery.
"They wanted to kill me. They wanted to throw me into a big river. They put me in a sack, ready to do it. When I escaped, they gave me shocks with an eletrical power flex."
More than 14,000 children in Kinshasa are said to have been thrown out of their homes accused of witchcraft. It is tempting to think that if Prophet Onokoko manages to remove the stigma from some of them so they can return to their families, his sect is worth its weight in gold.
Not so, says Save The Children. The organisation's representative here, Mahimbo Mdoe, has researched the world of enfants dit sorciers and is extremely worried by the work of the exorcism sects, and not least Prophet Onokoko's.
"As far as we're concerned, what's going in that organisation is purely and simply child abuse," he says.
"Children are made to vormit up things that have been inserted into them unnaturally.
"Two eyewitnesses have told us of objects like bars of soap being inserted into the anuses of children. It all shows just how vulnerable children in Kinshasa are, if they get thrown out their families accused of being child witches."
The Prophet denied all of this, but he was happy enough showing his Polaroid photos of items he claimed to have forced children to vomit up - and one photograph in particular was distressing to see.
A boy with a massively bloated stomach grinned at the camera. But a part of the picture, just over his right leg, had not come out. There was a white flash over his shin.
"The white is there because the spirit of the demon was inside his leg," said the Prophet.
"He had to be given several exorcisms. Now, he is fine."
Quite what "several exorcisms" would do to a boy who could not have been more than 12 is anyone's guess, but the charity thought they knew - his insides were so badly disrupted, they believed, that he died.
The "demon" in his leg was nothing more than a fault when the photo was developed.
We stood looking at that picture for a while, wondering when the suffering of Congo's children would ever end.
Links to other Africa stories are at the foot of the page.
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