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What Makes a Community Cry Witch?

As political instability roils the Central African Republic, neighbors are accusing neighbors of practicing the dark arts.

Neighbors of the victim say they saw her husband push the older woman off her broomstick. She hit the ground naked, holding sardine tins, widely viewed as a suspicious symbol in central Africa, in both hands. One July night, they chased the woman for two kilometers in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. When they caught her, she admitted to practicing witchcraft, and her neighbors stoned her to death, putting an end to the hunt but not to the rumors that fueled it.

Two days later, at the central hospital's morgue, the corpse tells a different story. The woman's body is intact and her feet smooth, indicating she did not run two kilometers. With only the back of her head bashed in, she is waiting: The local police have put out short bulletins calling for family members to come forth and identify her. As she lies there, unclaimed and unburied, she telegraphs a recent reality for women in the CAR: They are particularly susceptible to dangerous—and occasionally fatal—gossip about witchcraft.

As conflict in the CAR continues after the coup d'état that ousted former president François Bozizé in 2013, experts say political instability is spurring people to turn on neighbors with claims of practicing the occult. Witchcraft is a common belief held throughout the central African region, but suspicions of it are "at epidemic proportions in [the] CAR," Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research, has written. Every single day someone is killed in the CAR for witchcraft; before 2010, witchcraft was a crime punishable by death.

Bozizé's ouster gave rise to the Anti-balaka militia that opposed the new regime, which was led by the Seleka Muslim rebel group. While in 2014 the United Nations deployed a peacekeeping force alongside a French force that helped install a new government, conflict continues between the Anti-balaka and splinter militias. Political turmoil is instilling fear that leads to accusations, according to Angelique Kel, the head of Women Act for Living Together, a non-governmental organization whose work includes aiding those accused of witchcraft. Older women who are widowed and childless, and have no living relatives are most susceptible. "Sometimes the state is obliged to put these accused women in prison to protect them from mob justice," she says.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe to our magazine now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

Traditionally, women past childbearing age have been treated with great respect in the CAR. "In our society, an old person is someone who is wise, who has a lot of knowledge, who was respected in our traditions, who was venerated, who provided advice," anthropologist Louis Bainilago of the University of Bangui says of the pre-coup era. But "these days, with the breakdown we have witnessed in our modern world, human life is no longer important," he says.

In the CAR, the judge has the power to decide if the defendant is a witch or not using Articles 149 and 150 of the Central African penal code. Witchcraft cases are decided based on evidence, and strange behavior can implicate a person: An older woman who keeps to herself, who eats alone inside her house, in "secret," is suspicious to the community at large.

But Articles 149 and 150 are vague, according to Blanche Tiret Balingapo, a lawyer for the Association of Female Lawyers of the CAR. "The penal code doesn't exactly define what is witchcraft," she says. Magistrates ruling on witch cases regularly allow children to give witness accounts of the accused's behavior and recollections: Even the defendants' own nightmares are admitted in court against them. In some cases, if the accused maintains that she is not a witch, the judge may force her to name another person in her place.

Back at the morgue, two city employees arrive to bury the woman who was murdered. They wrap her in a heavy plastic body bag and shove it into a van with a grunt while the driver, impatient, listens to American gospel music.

After a 20-minute drive, they drag the body bag unceremoniously through the dirt over other graves—heaps of newly shoveled dirt with crude metal crosses sticking out of them. A fight breaks out between the gravediggers as to who will get paid for this thankless task—the city is irregular about paying for municipal work. The morgue assistants, their clothing saturated with formaldehyde and other liquids, then realize suddenly that the van has left, meaning the men must walk back to central Bangui after their job is done.

The woman, still wrapped in a body bag, is dumped into the waiting hole; the gravediggers, having settled the money issue among themselves, shovel clods of dirt on top of her. No metal cross will adorn her final resting place—no one has arranged to pay for it. It took a village, whispering, prattling, gossiping, to accuse her—but here, as the men walk away, all is silent.

This story was funded in part by the International Women's Media Foundation. A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.