WHAT’S THE STORY?

A STATELY, middle-aged woman, Honorine Munyole doesn’t look exceptional but her neat appearance belies a steely determination to stop the horrific abuse of children and women in her country.

To those she protects she is a hero and her lone battle in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now being publicised outside her country in an award-winning documentary that premiered in the UK this month.

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A local police chief, she has been nicknamed Mama Colonel and the film of the same name by Dieudo Hamadi has just aired at Sheffield Documentary Festival. The showing coincided with reports that increasing numbers of women and children are being accused of witchcraft in the strife-torn country.

Thousands of other children have been recruited as soldiers to fight in the seemingly perpetual conflicts in the Central African country.

Those that have escaped recruitment are often victims of sexual and physical abuse with many sold to child traffickers. Added to this, is a worrying rise in the witchcraft accusations with reports emerging of thousands of children held in churches across the country in order to be subjected to “deliverance rituals” that include starvation and torture.

Some have even been blamed and killed for misfortunes that have hit their families. Others are driven onto the streets accused of witchcraft if they are disabled, wet the bed or suffer from nightmares.

 

WHY WITCHCRAFT?

SUSPICIONS of witchcraft have surfaced in the past but previously it was old women who were accused. In recent years these accusations have been directed at children with some poverty-stricken families using witchcraft as an excuse to get rid of another hungry mouth.

Amidst this horrific scenario, Munyole stands out as a beacon of light. In a country where the abuse of women and children is accepted as standard, even her specialist role as a protector of minors is unusual and the film documents her uphill battle.

Starting in the city of Bukavu in the east of the country, the film follows her as she is transferred to Kisangani, the third largest city in DRC. Her redeployment is regarded as a tragedy by the women and children who have come to trust her.

“Who will look after our children now?” cries one woman. Another, whose small toddler was abducted from her home and raped by a gang of men, says: “Mama, if you leave who is going to help us?”

Yet another pleads with her to take her small daughter but Munyole, a mother-of-four, has already kept three of the babies she has rescued.

 

IS SHE REALLY ALONE?

MUNYOLE gets little help or funds for her work. The hapless men employed to help her move and her new team in Kisangani appear apathetic and useless. With little protection she has to confront brutal adults in order to rescue abused children and it is apparent there is a common belief that many children deserve to be locked up or beaten because of the “demons” that possess them.

Undaunted Munyole warns the people of Kisangani: “Children here are really mistreated. You are abandoning them. You are accusing them of witchcraft, you are hitting them. I warn you, if I come across someone, man or woman, they will regret what they have done.”

She says later: “Children become scapegoats for family problems. When there is nothing to eat they will blame the kids. Many are killed or end up living on the streets.

“Without shelter at night they fall prey to sexual violence and they are not attending school — there is no escape route.”

Oladapo Awosokanre, of the charity Afruca, says the witchcraft accusations are rising.

“Often when there has been a misfortune in the family, so-called faith leaders will point to children as the cause,” he says. “Fake spiritual leaders are accusing children of being possessed before extorting money from the distressed families as payment to exorcise the ‘evil spirits’.”

 

IS THE FUTURE BLEAK?

LACK of funding means Munyole is often reduced to pleading for donations from local people.

“In our line of work there is no money,” she says.

“It is really hard when you come across orphans and there is no means to help them. When I can’t fulfil my duty it hurts me and even I am subject to psychological trauma.”

She often offers shelter in her own home to the victims and in the film is seen appealing to the community for any donations at all “even a piece of coal”.

People are reluctant to give, however, with many telling her it is the government’s job to provide support.

“The justice system in Congo has really ignored sexual and gender-based violence until very recently,” says political scientist Phil Clark.

However, Munyole is hopeful that new laws will protect vulnerable children and women and there are some signs that attitudes within the community are changing too. Three women who sell dried fish at the local market are seen in the film presenting Munyole with money they have saved.

“We’ve learned what you are doing and we are deeply touched,” they tell her. “That’s why we’ve gathered our little funds to support your work with these widows and orphans.”

Munyole replies: “I’m truly moved to learn there is still love. I thought I was alone.”