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UIGE, Angola — Domingos Pedro was 12 years old when his father, a government worker in this isolated provincial capital, died three years ago. His father's passing was sudden; the cause was a mystery to doctors.
But not to Domingos's relatives. They gathered that afternoon in his mud-clay house, he said, seized him and bound his legs with rope. They tossed the rope over the house's 3-meter, or foot, high rafters and hoisted him up until he was suspended head-first over the hard dirt floor. Then they told him they would cut the rope if he did not confess to murdering his father. Terrified, Domingos told them what they wanted to hear, but his relatives were not appeased.
Ferraz Bulio, the neighborhood's traditional leader, said seven or eight captors were dragging Domingos down a dirt path to the river, apparently to drown him, when he intervened. There are lots of such cases. Bulio is right. In parts of Angola, Congo and the Congo Republic, a surprising number of children are identified as witches and beaten, abused or abandoned. Child advocates estimate that thousands of children living in the streets of Kinshasa, Congo's rubble-strewn capital, have been accused of witchcraft and cast out by their families - often a rationale for not having to feed or care for them.
The authorities in one northern Angolan town identified street children who had been abandoned or abused as suspected witches. A report last year by the government's National Institute for the Child and the United Nations Children's Fund described the number of children deemed to be witches as "massive. The notion of child witches is not new here. It is a common belief in Angola's dominant Bantu culture that witches can communicate with the world of the dead and usurp or "eat" the life force of others, bringing their victims misfortune, illness and death.
Adult witches are said to bewitch children by giving them food, and then force them to reciprocate by sacrificing a family member. But officials attribute the surge in persecutions of children to war - 27 years in Angola, ending in , and near constant strife in Congo. The conflicts orphaned many children, while leaving other families intact but too destitute to feed themselves.