October 26th, 2007 09:30 EST
Witchcraft allegations plague camps in southern Chad
Allegations of witchcraft are swirling around camps for internally displaced persons in Chad are causing further confusion and violence in the already chaotic atmosphere, according to the United Nations refugee agency, which has organized initiatives to combat accusations and confusion on the matter.
When 11 refugees fell ill and died within a single week earlier this year at the Dosseye camp, host to over 5,500 of the 45,000 Central African Republic refugees in Chad, suspicions of witchcraft led to cases of assault and arson, the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a news release.
The problem stems from the fact that two-thirds of the refugees are ethnic Fulbé/Peul, “who recognize both the existence of witches and the role of the traditional healer and exorcist,” UNHCR said.
In one incident, after three siblings died within an hour, a widowed mother of eight in the camp who is an ethnic Peul was attacked by 15 others who accused her of cursing the children.
Josiane Nguerebaye, from UNHCR's community services team, said after the 11 deaths – mostly from diarrhoea, malaria and malnutrition – “other refugees really lost faith in their ability to recover from illnesses and lost faith in modern medicines.” Many went exclusively to the traditional healers in the camps for treatment, and if they succumbed to their illnesses it was often explained as witchcraft.
“People had stopped drinking the well water and started getting their water from the swamps and rivers around the camp. Others were either not going to the health clinic or were going there too late,” said the UNHCR official. “It caused huge [health] problems.”
In response, the agency and its partners organized seven awareness sessions to try to end this vicious circle that had refugees turning away from modern medicine.
“The sessions weren't about the existence of witches or witchcraft, but instead focused on health, sanitation, community cohesion and the danger of accusing people without evidence,” explained Dosseye's camp manager, Gatsia Tounakissia, who works for UNHCR's partner, CARE International.
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