Every now and then, a murder trial exposes a depth of human cruelty so profound that it cries out for an explanation. The torture and murder of 15-year-old Kristy Bamu, whose family was originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is one of those cases: how could such things happen in a tower block in east London? The pathologist who examined Kristy found 130 internal and external injuries. His elder sister, Magalie Bamu, 29, and her boyfriend, Eric Bikubi, 28, attacked the boy because they thought he was a witch. Three days ago, the pair were found guilty of murdering Kristy during a so-called "exorcism ceremony".
There seems to have been an increase in this type of violence in the UK; the Metropolitan Police says it has investigated 83 cases of "faith-based" child abuse involving witchcraft in the past decade. One was the horrific torture and murder of eight-year-old girl Victoria Climbié, from Ivory Coast, by her great-aunt and her boyfriend in 2000. Another was the case of Child B, an eight-year-old from Angola, whose torture by a woman believed to be her aunt and other adults was revealed in a child cruelty trial in 2005.
The involvement of kindoki or African forms of witchcraft in these cases has produced sensational headlines. Some black churches in London have been accused of carrying out "exorcisms", legitimising the idea of demonic possession in the minds of their followers. But the most important fact about accusations of witchcraft, wherever they occur, is that they are a form of scapegoating.
Thousands of vulnerable adults, most of them women, were tortured and murdered in Europe at the height of the witch-hunting craze. In societies where sudden death from illness was common, along with other calamities such as failed crops, credulous people looked for scapegoats. More often than not, they settled on women who were different in some way – unmarried or widowed, living alone or with animals for company. Accusations that they had cast spells, changed themselves into animals or were able to fly were common, and had lethal consequences. Now very similar accusations are being made against children and teenagers in the UK, and for similar reasons.
Within hours of arriving from Paris to spend Christmas in London, Kristy Bamu was accused of bringing kindoki into the flat his eldest sister shared with her boyfriend. Kristy and two other sisters, aged 11 and 20, were beaten, but the girls were spared after they "confessed" to being witches. Kristy was so frightened that he wet himself, which led to him being singled out for the prolonged torture that ended in his murder.
Victims of "faith-based" violence are usually the weakest members of a family, children or teenagers whose behaviour is perceived as different or difficult, at the mercy of aunts, uncles, step-parents and boyfriends who have little or no affection for them. Among a few African families, living in cramped conditions and struggling financially, the temptation to find a scapegoat may be as real as it was in 15th-century Europe.
That doesn't alter the fact that accusing a vulnerable family member of witchcraft is often the prelude to prolonged and sadistic child cruelty. That's what these cases are really about: child abuse, cruel and unrepentant, in which the victims are demonised and then blamed for the injuries that are inflicted upon them.