March 27, 2009

Gambia and witchcraft

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Fear reigns in Gambian village targeted by witch hunters

March 24,2009 Agence France-Presse

MAKUMBAYA, The Gambia - In this remote village residents are still shaken by their abduction and forced treatment with potions in one of the bizarre witch hunts that are occurring throughout the west African country.

The calm of this rural community, a collection of old huts and houses some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital Banjul, was shattered last week when so-called witch hunters arrived with armed men and rounded up residents.

"We were arrested on Monday March 16 in our village by armed personnel who accompanied some so-called witch hunters to our village and taken to Kololi (close to Banjul)," a 63-year-old man from the village told AFP.

The villagers were not told why they were targeted but their captors just said they were sick and would need to take medicines.

"We were forced to drink concoctions and shortly after drinking the liquid that night, most of us who were abducted fell down and went into trance and did not know what was happening," said the old man, who asked not to be identified, still distraught by his ordeal.

He was held for five days and later released. When he spoke to AFP he was still visibly weakened.

According to Amnesty International and police sources in Gambia the witch hunters operate together with the Gambian authorities. There are reports that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh blames witchcraft for the death of his aunt earlier this year.

Amnesty said last Wednesday that up to 1,000 people had so far been kidnapped and held. After being forced to drink potions that make them hallucinate and behave erratically they are released, according to the human rights watchdog.

Reports are now surfacing that many women were also raped during their detention.

"I personally saw three women who were undressed by the witch hunters and raped them at a time when they were unconscious," the 63-year-old farmer told AFP.

A 34-year-old market vendor from the same village angrily told AFP of her horrific ordeal while being held.

"I was raped during the second day of my detention by a very young man," she said, close to tears.

"While I was in detention, this young man who was so rude came to me and asked me to take a bath and while I was taking the bath, he stood and looked at me naked. Whenever I planned to go to the toilet (...) the young man would insist that he accompany me. It was during one of those instances that (he) wrestled me to the ground and forcefully raped me", she said.

In Makumbaya many residents did not want to speak to journalists for fear of reprisals.

"I cannot talk to you (...) it is not that I don't want to explain my ordeal to you but because I don't want to be arrested," a woman in her fifties told AFP.

Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland, has been ruled by Jammeh since he grabbed power in a bloodless coup in 1994. In recent years it has come increasingly under fire over its poor human rights record.

Jammeh's opponents, real and perceived, also find themselves subjected to daily rights violations including torture and unlawful arrests, human rights organisations say.

Many in rural Gambia are have fled to neighbouring Senegal to escape the witch hunts.

"I think the best option at the moment is to leave this country and go to neighbouring Senegal, where I believe life will be better for me because we cannot cope with this current situation really", a 24-year-old man told AFP.

Despite the international attention the witch hunts have drawn, the Gambian media, which is under heavy government scrutiny, hardly carries any reports about it.

Only the opposition weekly Foroyaa has written about the incidents. Its political editor, who is also the leader of Gambia's biggest opposition party Halifa Sallah, was arrested March 9 on charges of spying and seditious acts for reporting about events in Makumbaya. However, in an about-face last week all the charges against him were dropped.

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