CLICK HERE TO DONATE NOW.
Julien used to be a witch. His grandmother was the first to spot something sinister about the boy. She blamed him for the unexpected deaths of his aunt and cousin soon after he moved in with them. In despair she took him, then aged 12, to one of the thousands of revivalist churches in post-war Congo, where exorcists attempted to drive out evil spirits by pouring chilli water in his eyes and burying him up to his neck in the ground for days at a time.
When this did not work his grandmother threw him out to live on the streets of Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo's filthy, frightening capital. Each night Julien would join the legions of faseurs (rough-sleepers) who haunt the sides of the city's crumbling roads and crowded slums.
Julien found that he was not alone. Thousands of other boys and girls had been labelled witches and set adrift. He had been told so many times that he was a witch, or a kindoki in his native Lingala, that he couldn't help but believe it was true.
It was only after he was rescued from the streets and came to live in the Bana ya Poveda, a centre for rescued children, that he changed his mind. Now after three years of schooling and support he is able to talk about his past.
"In my family they were insulting me and calling me kindoki," says the 15-year-old. "When I was on the street it was very real but when I came here they told me there are no witches in Kinshasa. It was all lies." The regional conflagration that raged in the Congo cost five million lives and its legacy continues to blight many survivors. Families like Julien's were forced from their homes – often running from one town to the next, or fleeing like his parents across the border to Angola – in an exodus that tore up communities.
In the ensuing chaos, even Africa's richest resource, the extended family, was overwhelmed. In times of extraordinary stress traditional beliefs have come to the fore and the accusation of witchcraft became a destructive commonplace. Often the last child into the home became the first thrown out when there was not enough to go around. The word kindoki was often an excuse. "The war has taken something that was already there and made it much worse," explains Lwango Madho, a field worker with Save the Children, which supports centres in Kinshasa like the one in which Julien and 45 other boys now live.
When some boys in the centre's rowdy playground hear the word kindoki, an argument ensues: "If you think kindokis are real, what colour are they?" demands one boy. After thinking it over the another boy replies "black" but he doesn't look sure. A distended belly, skin rashes, bed-wetting and torn clothes are among the tell-tale signs communities use to spot a witch. And thousands of quack pastors are making money out of the superstitions, offering scared families elaborate, cruel exorcism ceremonies. "It's a long process to convince the family that there's nothing to be scared of," says Ms Madho, whose job it is to locate and, where possible, reconcile the child with their surviving relatives.
Meanwhile centres like Bana ya Poveda provide some of the lucky ones from an estimated 14,000 faseurs with an education and a trade such as electrician or cobbler. But even the little help they afford, which costs less than £1 per day, per child, is under threat as European donors retreat under the strain of the debt crisis.
For some, like Frederic, nine, the centre has provided a happy next chapter to a darkly Dickensian life. As a small boy he was forced to leave his mother and went to live with his father when the policeman married another woman. But his stepmother was cruel and had him thrown out for being a witch. He was then brought to Kinshasa by child traffickers who sold him to a Fagin, from whom he escaped.
"It was difficult on the streets, people would beat you for nothing and treat us badly," he remembers.
That life is over for a third boy, David. Save the Children has found his mother who knew nothing of his plight and is ready to take him in. He is nervous to leave his friends and see his mother after so long but feels good to be getting his family back: "A house is always more than a centre. A centre is not my place."
The names of the boys have been changed to protect them
Appeal partners: Who we are supporting
Save the Children
Save the Children works in 120 countries, including the UK. It saves children's lives, fights for their rights and help them fulfil their potential. Save the Children's vital work reaches more than 8 million children each year – keeping them alive, getting them into school and protecting them from harm. www.savethechildren.org.uk
The Children's Society
The Children's Society provides crucial support to vulnerable children and young people in England, including those who have run away from home. Many have experienced neglect, isolation or abuse, and all they want is a safe and happy home. Its project staff provide essential support to desperate children who have nowhere else to turn.
Rainbow Trust Children's Charity
Rainbow Trust Children's Charity provides emotional and practical support for families who have a child with a life-threatening or terminal illness. For families living with a child who is going to die, Rainbow Trust is the support they wished they never had to turn to, but would struggle to cope without.
At The Independent, we believe that these organisations can make a big difference to changing many children's lives.
CLICK HERE TO DONATE NOW.