Take Me Home, Mother Russia

10 places that would welcome a Putin landgrab, and 10 parts of Russia that want the hell out.

Vladimir Putin's trademark smirk, equal parts smugness and mischief, was never more appropriate than March 18 in the Kremlin's St. George Hall, when justifying Russia's lightning-speed annexation of Crimea.

Not only did Putin finally reverse his country's dramatic territorial shrinkage post Soviet Union, he did it while thumbing his nose at the West and its hypocrisy on what he called the "Kosovo precedent." How dare the United States and its allies, who supported that Serbian province's unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 in the face of Moscow's furious but futile opposition, now deny the persecuted Crimeans that same option?

Ironically, Putin's denouncement of the West's about-face also applies to Russia's own change of heart. "You cannot call the same thing black today and white tomorrow," he fumed.

But if a precedent that is imitated is no longer an exception, then self-determination might be the new rule. And Putin might want to get ready for a lot more instances of superpower-sponsored separatism.

Indeed, Russia is likely to remain the epicenter for these geopolitical tremors. But -- and this might prove more painful for Moscow soon -- there are plenty of regions, territories, and autonomous republics who want to do to Russia what Crimea did to Ukraine: get the heck out of there.

Here are the 10 likeliest comers and goers in the Kremlin's new parlor game.

Top 10 on the way in

1. Transnistria

Cutting an unlikely figure, this phantom state of roughly half a million people measures about 450 miles north to south, but is barely 15 miles across. It occupies the east bank of the Dniestr, the river that separates it from the rest of Moldova, from which this Russian-dominated region seceded in 1992 -- with a little help from the Russian Army and Cossack irregulars. And yet not even Russia recognizes Transnistria as an independent nation -- it entertains diplomatic relations only with the three other members of the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations (CDRN), a losers' club of post-Soviet puppet states (more on the other members Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh below). On March 17, the local parliament appealed to the Russian Duma for this breakaway region to also join Russia. That might be tricky, as it is completely wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, sharing no border with Russia proper. But it works for Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, and it could work for Transnistria, too.

2. Donbass

The Donets Basin, or Donbass, in Eastern Ukraine is twice the size of Massachusetts, with about 7 million inhabitants. It was a crucial industrial epicenter of the Soviet Union, a communist version of the Ruhrgebiet, the beating heart of West Germany's Wirtschaftswunder. Soviet posters proclaimed it Serdse Rossii -- the Heart of Russia. The massive concentration of steel, coal, and other heavy industries attracted Russians and other Soviet nationalities, producing a pro-Russian majority in what is the most densely populated part of Ukraine. This is the home turf of Victor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president whose overthrow in February sparked the current crisis, and it's the likeliest stage for any further Russian land grabs in Ukraine.

3. New Russia

The area just north of Crimea on the Ukrainian mainland was called Novorossiya, or "New Russia" after the Kremlin wrested it from Ottoman control in the 18th century and opened it up for Russian colonization. It is still heavily Russophone, especially in bigger cities like Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk, and consistently voted for the Party of Regions, whose mainstay was Yanukovych and other pro-Moscow candidates. It could conceivably be persuaded to lean toward Moscow rather than Kiev. And Russia's first military pinpricks, from Crimea into New Russia, have already been reported, with Russia occupying a gas pumping station in the town of Strilkove just north of Crimea in mid-March.

4. Abkhazia

No more than 25 miles east of Sochi, the jewel in Russia's Olympic crown, is Abkhazia -- the prettiest of the four "sleeping beauties" in Russia's near abroad (the other three frozen conflict zones being Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabakh.) Like the others, this too was effectively created by the Red Army, which in 1993 helped the Abkhaz chase the Georgians from what nominally still is the western extremity of that country. As with Transnistria and South Ossetia, Abkhazia's independence is recognized by just a handful of states. If Crimea fares well as part of Russia, Abkhazia -- which has signaled approval for Crimea's secession -- might also be tempted to join.

5. South Ossetia

Another chunk out of Georgia, carved from the northern part of the country in a short, sharp Russo-Georgian war in August 2008 that saw Georgia's pro-Western president Mikheil Saakashvili nervously eat his tie on television -- literally -- as Russian tanks approached the capital Tblisi. Numbering just 55,000, the South Ossetians constitute the smallest of Russia's unofficial protectorates. (Fun fact: They are the descendants of the Alans, an Indo-Iranian tribe that may be the etymological source for the English name Alan.) South Ossetia, too, is increasingly turning from Georgia to Russia. And if Crimea's absorption goes well, Russia might swallow South Ossetia for dessert.

6. Belarus

What communist apparatchik still hogs the presidency of a post-Soviet republic, stubbornly choosing imperial nostalgia over ties to the outside world? Welcome to Belarus, formerly aka White Russia and Belorussia, ruled since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko, a mustachioed Statler to Putin's Waldorf. This Slavic country is such a close political and cultural match with Russia that in 1999 the two countries signed a treaty to form a confederation (though it soon lost steam.) Any new merger would likely be sanctioned by a referendum, but in a country often dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship," such a plebiscite would be as questionable as the recent Crimean one.

7. Northern Kazakhstan

Russia remains the world's largest country, but it's down considerably in size from the days of the Soviet Union. This is mainly due to the secession of the Central Asian ‘Stans, of which Kazakhstan -- with an area of more than 1 million square miles, clocking in at four times the size of Texas -- is the largest. In Soviet times, Russians outnumbered Kazakhs in their own republic. That's no longer the case, but Russians remain in the majority in northern Kazakhstan, an enormous zone of dry, flat steppe adjacent to the Russian border. Like Crimea, this region was part of Russia proper before the Soviets transferred it. The return of that prodigal region could stir some emotions on the steppe. After all, this is the location of Russia's vital Baikonur spaceport; and no less an authority than Alexander Solzhenitsyn advocated Russia's annexation of these lands.

8. Russians in the Baltic

If and when Putin wants to pick a fight with the European Union, there is little doubt where the trouble will start -- in the three Baltic states, the only former republics of the USSR that are now EU members. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have reinvented themselves as tech-savvy mini-states, Scandinavian in ambition rather than encumbered by their Soviet past. But each is home to sizeable Russian minorities, which are in the majority in some regions and cities, and whose heartfelt nostalgia and genuine frustration are feared by the Balts and treasured by the Russians as pent-up reservoirs of political friction.

9. Nagorno Karabakh

Back in 1989, this is where the Soviet Union started to unravel, when fighting broke out between the ethnic Armenians of this enclave and the majority Azeri of the republic from which they wanted to secede. Months of vicious fighting and reciprocal massacres finally led to a stalemate that continues today, with the phantom state of Artsakh established by the victorious Armenians, in a region that officially is still part of Azerbaijan. This untenable situation has been maintained for a quarter of a century. Could Russia come to the aid of the encircled Armenians?

10. Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

Putin is only partly right when he says that Russia has a historical claim on Crimea. Russia's history in the region is only three centuries old -- before that, the Turks and Tatars ruled the roost. Perhaps a better formula for the Putin Doctrine is this: Russia has rights wherever Russians live in significant numbers. Who says that this policy needs to stop at the borders of the former Soviet Union? Maybe a few Russian trikolori burning in Brighton Beach is all the reason Vladimir Vladimirovich needs to send a few gunboats from freshly conquered Sevastopol to round the tip of Breezy Point...

* * *

Top 10 on the way out

1. Chechnya

The Caucasus is a quilt of cultures, languages, religions, grudges, and vendettas -- none so deadly as the one between Chechens and Russians. With the Soviet Union imploding, Chechnya made the mistake of trying to "do a Kosovo" by declaring its independence from Russia. The Russians would have none of it, but it took two wars to pummel the Chechens back into the fold: a ploddingly ineffective one under Yeltsin in the 1990s, and a viciously effective one under Putin over the last decade. But despite its pro-Russian leadership, separatism grows like weed in Chechnya; when Moscow directs its attention elsewhere for a while, it will blossom again. And perhaps in a more virulent form: a small, hard core of Wahhabi Chechens has been willing to use violence to establish an Emirate of the Caucasus, that would include other restless areas such as Dagestan and Ingushetia.

2. Tatarstan

The Volga is one of the great Russian landscapes, but that river laps the shores of a decidedly non-Russian entity: Tatarstan, the northernmost outpost of Islam in the world. Like many nationalities in the Soviet Union, the Tatars had their own republic, in which they were purposely made a minority. However, they now constitute just over half of the republic's 2 million people -- and it continues to grow more Muslim and Turkic, and less Russian. This has energized Tatar nationalism beyond the safe zones of social, cultural, and religious issues, even though separatism would be more than a bit tricky for a province entirely encircled by Russia.

3. Idel-Ural

The Tatars are numerous enough to contemplate going it alone, but the other non-Russian ethnicities in the wider area tend to dream of an independent Idel-Ural (Volga-Ural), the collective name for Tatarstan and five other tiny republics: Udmurtia, Mordovia, Chuvashia, Bashkortostan, and Mari-El. Their religions include Islam, Orthodoxy, and paganism and only some of their languages are mutually intelligible. But they share one important common trait: They're not Russian!

4. Kalmykia

Europe's only Buddhist state, this Russian republic of roughly 300,000 people on the western shores of the Caspian Sea is populated by the descendants of Siberian herders. The Kalmyk's unique ethnic and religious status within Russia -- and their forced russification, collectivization, and deportation -- has kept their sense of "otherness" alive. The capital, Elista, is a well-known venue of high-profile chess matches, and the Kalmyk president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the head of FIDE, the International Chess Federation, is also famous for the tour of the galaxy he claimed he took in 1997 on a UFO. Could a resurgent Asian power reach out and loosen Moscow's grip on Chessland?

5. Kaliningrad

The northern part of what used to be East Prussia, Germany's easternmost province, is now Russia's westernmost district. Few Germans remain, and the region's nearly half-million people are mostly Russian. But being surrounded by prosperous EU member states may be going to their heads. Some Kaliningraders have even taken to calling their capital by its old name of Königsberg again, more to stress distance from Moscow than proximity to Berlin. Hence also the Baltic Republican Party, whose aim was greater autonomy and possibly independence, which Moscow abolished in 2003, though it has since re-formed as a "public movement."

6. Karelia

Karelia is the name of a Russian territory bordering a Finnish territory with the same name, and a shared history. Much of Russian Karelia (aka East Karelia) was Finnish before the Soviets took it from them in the Winter War of 1939-40; its inhabitants are now mainly non-Finnish newcomers. Still, some Finnish groups like ProKarelia are eager to reclaim the area, which they see as the Finnish heartland. And the fall of communism has enabled a renaissance of Finnish culture in the region, in large part fuelled by émigré Karelians, who could be crucial in steering the region toward a vote to loosen its ties with Moscow.

7. Komi Republic

The nomadic Komi make up barely a quarter of the million inhabitants of this Iraq-sized, mineral-rich republic in the northern reaches of European Russia. But the Russians are newbies: mainly former convicts and their descendants. If the Komi could persuade them to depart for sunnier climes, or go native and work toward an independent homeland, this mass of frozen tundra (which claims to have reserves of 242 billion tons of coal, over 600 million tons of oil and over 140 billion cubic meters of gas) could be the Saudi Arabia of the North.

8. Circassia

Before Sochi was Russian, it was the capital of the Circassians. Afterward, it became the graveyard of those who couldn't or wouldn't flee overseas. The expulsion of the Circassians from their homeland in the northwestern Caucasus is one of the lesser-known tragedies of the 19th century -- at least outside the Muslim world. Their descendants now live in Turkey, and throughout the Middle East. A nascent nationalism among these millions demands the restoration of their ancient homeland.

9. Karachay-Balkaria

A classic example or Soviet Russia's divide-and-rule policy: place the ethnically-related Balkar and Karachay peoples in "national" republics with other, less-related ethnicities. The nationalist agenda in the region reads like a DIY manual: first, divide Kabardino-Balkaria into a Kabardin and a Balkar republic and Karachay-Cherkessia into a Karachay and a Cherkess republic. Then, assemble the Balkar and Karachay parts into a single republic. Still with me? After this, unite both ethnicities into a single one. And finally, if anyone is still up for it, get the newly united Turkic republic to unite with Turkey itself -- just a short ride away across the Caspian Sea. 

10. Birobidzhan

Before the Jews had Israel, they had this area of Siberia to call home, and Joseph Stalin to thank for it. Birobidzhan, east of Mongolia and bordering China, was to become the Jewish homeland. While that may not exactly have gone to plan, the republic is still officially designated the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and Yiddish is still co-official language with Russian. There's even still about 6,000 Jews living there. Perhaps it would be wise for World Zionism to develop this option, in case something serious happens to Plan A. Another big plus: it's well outside the range of Iranian missiles.

Bonus round! Siberia

The Big One. Continent-sized. Resource-rich. And it's only lightly sprinkled with Russians -- yes, it's 40 million, but that's only about two per square mile. Already busily exploited by the resource-poor and space-starved Chinese. For now, the Chinese are siphoning off oil and hauling south lumber strictly under Russian licenses. But geopolitics abhors a vacuum. And Beijing is much richer and closer by than Moscow. What's to stop China from playing the Crimea scenario on two thirds of Russia?



'On Va Tuer Les Demons'
('We Will Kill the Demons')

Fear, faith, and the hunt for child sorcerers in Congo.

Inside a small concrete church, lit by a few tungsten bulbs hanging from exposed wires, hundreds of people stood packed together in stifling heat, repeating the words their pastor bellowed into a microphone.

"On va tuer les demons" -- "We will kill the demons."

It was after midnight in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the service was just getting under way. The pastor, Pierre Pinda Buana, wore a simple, blue button-down shirt. Its acrylic shimmered as he moved around the center of the room -- smooth, practiced, confident. For almost an hour, Pinda led his congregation through songs and chants, the fervor in the church mounting. Then he preached about the main event they had all come to witness: exorcism.

Charles, a Congolese friend of mine, who asked that I not use his real name, translated Pinda's words from Lingala, a local language, to French. But the cries, clapping, and ululations of the crowd often drowned out his voice.

Pinda began describing a demon that was living in the body of a woman who stood before him, almost entirely blocked from my sight by the crowd: "It's attacking the heart. It's attacking the stomach. It strikes faster than an arrow." He called out to the demon, asking why it wanted to kill the woman.

Electrical contacts crackled -- I glimpsed a church assistant crouched over a fuse box in the rear doorway -- and the bulb dangling above Pinda went dark. Light fell inward from the corners of the room, yellow and angular. Suddenly, the woman collapsed onto the ground and began shouting. The crowd pressed in around her as she writhed and arched her back.

"Elle dit" -- Charles told me -- "she is saying the spirit wanted to kill her in her sleep because she had a good future. The spirit wanted to destroy the hope in her."

Pinda spoke in a commanding voice, and the woman replied, every word staccato, like a glottal stop. The demon was speaking through the woman, Charles said, and resisting the exorcism. Pinda repeated "deliverance" again and again, his voice echoing in the church's speakers. The center bulb flared back on as he pointed down at the woman and cried out for the demon to leave. The people in the crowd pressed in even more tightly, lifting their arms. Each time the demon told Pinda it would not go, the pastor raised his voice and the crowd clamored, calling out to Jesus.

Suddenly, the people fell silent. The woman had closed her eyes. Those nearest to her hunched down, touching her as they prayed. In the background, a keyboardist in the church's band played a few soothing chords on a synthesizer.

The exorcism was surreal to an outsider standing in the clutch of believers -- a startling glimpse into what, for most people in the room, was a typical church service. Yet the most striking thing about the scene was that, despite the alleged cries of a demon, the professed presence of evil, the crowd never appeared scared of the exorcism -- only impassioned.

They were wary, however, of a cluster of children huddled in one corner of the room. Occasionally, a congregant would look over at these children in the shadows, most of them asleep. No one but Pinda's assistants went near them.

Charles, a university-educated, deeply religious man in his 30s whom I had met while working on a book project and who had agreed to serve as my guide to Kinshasa's churches, had hesitated to come that night because he knew the children would be there. They would be central to the service's finale, he explained: Pinda would exorcise them of malevolent spirits that are particularly dangerous when they possess the young.

Before the service, as the congregation waited on the dirt road outside the church, Charles had appeared nervous, arms crossed and shoulders drawn in. At one point, a church assistant walked outside and pushed his foot into a rut between the road and a sewer's concrete edge, prodding at what looked like a pile of rags. A child sat up; he had been sleeping next to the gutter and was covered in dirt. People in the crowd pulled back or stared, their eyes wide. The assistant nudged the boy, at most 5 or 6 years old, toward the church. He walked like any half-asleep child, slouched and staggering. He lost a disintegrating shoe and stopped to kick at it repeatedly until his foot went in. People parted to let him pass.

Charles backed away and took my arm. Leaning close, he whispered, "C'est un enfant sorcier" -- "It's a child sorcerer."


Over the past two years, during several visits to Kinshasa, I heard terrifying rumors -- of children who strangle parents in their sleep or eat the hearts of their siblings. Of swarms of children flying through the skies at night, stealing money or deliberately causing illnesses like HIV and polio.

These children, people said, are sorcerers. They are possessed by dark powers that cause them to commit nefarious, even murderous deeds. To prevent child sorcerers from mischief or worse, people told me, their families should reject them and society should shun them. Or they should be taken to church -- 80 percent of Congolese are Christian -- where a pastor can perform exorcisms in the name of God. Congo's wildly popular églises de réveil ("revival churches") -- an umbrella term for sects rooted in a mix of Pentecostal, charismatic, and prophetic beliefs, as well as local superstitions about dark magic -- are more than willing to oblige.

Indeed, the hysteria over child sorcery has spurred a frightening witch hunt, with devastating results. According to UNICEF in 2013, Congolese children accused of sorcery "number in the thousands." People experiencing hardship (a sudden illness, the loss of a job, the death of a relative) often search for a child to blame and find one in their own families. Some of these children are killed, but far more are abandoned, left to join Kinshasa's tens of thousands of street children. Or they are dragged to churches, where they may well find further misery. According to Human Rights Watch, alleged child sorcerers taken to churches may be denied food and water, whipped until they confess, or sexually abused. "[M]ore than 2,000 churches practice deliverance in Kinshasa alone," the organization has reported. Similarly, in a 2013 report about Congo, the U.S. State Department described "exorcisms of children accused of witchcraft involving isolation, beating and whipping, starvation, and forced ingestion of purgatives."

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Although the situation is difficult to quantify precisely, UNICEF has found that accusations of witchcraft against children are on the rise across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the problem is so pervasive in Congo -- in Kinshasa and elsewhere -- that the country passed a law in 2009 banning allegations against children. To date, it appears to have had little effect.

Many writers and anthropologists, such as Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums, have explained what's happening in Congo as a product of poverty: Families unable to feed or otherwise support their children accuse them of sorcery to get them off their hands. Some Congolese activists describe the problem in similar terms. "I think it's a trick so they [families] can get rid of them," said Marie Marguerite Djokaba, of the Network of Educators for Street Children and Youth (REEJER), in an interview. "The child sorcerer problem is related to the economic situation. It's an excuse to kick children out."

But this explanation of poverty and convenience feels incomplete; it doesn't account for how utter societal breakdown in Congo -- a country with a life expectancy of about 50 years and a GDP per capita of around $300 -- intertwines with religion. Revival churches, their leaders, and the extreme beliefs they promote offer a way for people to cope with a place like Kinshasa. Coined Kin la Belle ("Kin the Beautiful") during the colonial era, the Congolese capital -- with its sprawling slums, its widespread sickness, its refugees of the country's wars, and its scarce opportunity -- now sports the nickname Kin la Poubelle ("The Trash Can").

The Kinois, as the city's residents are known, seem to be searching for some semblance of power over their lives: a way to understand it, control it, eliminate the terrible from it. Tragically, religious faith that promises protection from evil -- and that locates the source of that evil in beings as vulnerable and ever present as children -- has become an answer.


The history of religion In Congo is one of worldviews colliding and then merging. A belief in spirits and magic long held a place in the traditions of the Bantu, the people who began spreading out from what is now southwestern Nigeria into central Africa thousands of years ago. After the Portuguese introduced Catholicism to coastal Congo at the end of the 15th century, traditional beliefs coexisted with Christianity. Many Congolese attended church while still seeking out witch doctors for guidance and healing. This transformation occurred alongside a series of massive social and economic disruptions: the slave trade and, eventually, the rule of Belgium's King Leopold II, whose administrators enslaved Congo's population to harvest rubber and ivory.

Though the first Western Pentecostal evangelists visited Congo in the early 20th century, a larger wave came after the end of colonialism, preaching the promise of a more direct connection between God and believers, as well as the power of divine healing. "Pentecostals see the role of healing as good news for the poor and afflicted," Allan Anderson, an expert on religion at the University of Birmingham, has written. The promotion of "signs and wonders," he also notes, is what "led to the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches in many parts of the world."

Yet, like other Christian traditions in Congo, Pentecostalism's influence was repressed during the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled from 1965 to 1997. With U.S. support during the Cold War, Mobutu pillaged his country's vast mineral wealth and hoarded state earnings in Swiss bank accounts, but he also eschewed Western influences on Congolese culture. He forbade the use of Christian names and emphasized traditional African beliefs. His payments to witch doctors took up 3 percent of the government's budget (more than the entire Health Ministry). During the 1974 World Cup, he even sent a plane full of witch doctors to cast spells on his country's opponents. (His team lost, badly.)

When Mobutu finally lifted restrictions on the activities of churches in 1990, Pentecostalism began expanding as Congo's social fabric was torn apart. Economic despair and political unrest already reigned by the time Mobutu fell from power, and the country soon descended into a war involving seven neighboring states, among them Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola. Funded by the global demand for Congolese resources, such as gold, diamonds, and coltan -- a mineral required for hand-held electronics -- the war killed more than 5 million people, the majority through disease and starvation.

Since then, conflict and poverty have continued to wrack Congo. Today in Kinshasa, a megaslum of between 8 million and 10 million (estimates vary and censuses are outdated), people are subject to all manner of predation. Soldiers and police routinely demand bribes from the poor, who can barely afford to eat; dilapidated taxi-vans dubbed les esprits des morts ("the spirits of the dead") veer wildly through traffic, indifferent to pedestrians; and organized gangs of young men called kulunas, after the Portuguese word for an army column, raid poor neighborhoods at night. Diseases like HIV/AIDS, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and dysentery are rampant.

According to José Mvuezolo Bazonzi, a political scientist at the University of Kinshasa, the brutality of life in Congo has created the ideal conditions for revival churches to flourish, from a limited presence in the early 1990s to a thriving, inescapable one today. (An evening drive through Kinshasa reveals many half-built églises de réveil, the congregations often visible where the walls are unfinished. Eight of the 13 faith-based radio stations in the capital belong to revival churches, as do nine of the 11 Christian TV stations.) Rejecting forms of authority that seem only to be failing, and offering both solidarity and agency through faith, the églises de réveil owe their popularity, Bazonzi writes, to the Congolese people's "search for identity, to the survival of thousands of despairing souls before adversity and precarious socioeconomic and political circumstances."

The churches' popularity also owes to the hybrid faith that they preach. Revival pastors have grabbed at threads of belief that aren't consistent, but nevertheless appeal to believers seeking both change and tradition in their lives. Churches have blended the Bantu conviction that spirits can directly influence earthly affairs with the Pentecostal doctrine of spiritual warfare: The devil tries to destroy souls, and Christians must battle the devil with faith. Critically, what has been lost from Bantu tradition is the idea, described by British anthropologist Victor Turner, that sufferers can reconcile their problems with the spirits afflicting them. Instead, because spirits are to blame for suffering, according to contemporary beliefs, the faithful must hunt down their human intermediaries and drive the evil out.

So people shop for preachers who reportedly have l'onction ("unction"), the transformative power of God to overcome any ill or problem. When word gets out that a preacher has cured blindness, made a cripple walk, or helped someone find a job -- l'onction operates in the economic sphere too -- people flock to his church. "The good news in Africa, Pentecostal preachers declare, is that God meets all the needs of people, including their spiritual salvation, physical healing, and other material necessities," Anderson has written.

Pinda, called le prophète by his flock, is known to have great healing powers. When I visited, a flier on his church's exterior wall promised a 14-day marathon of "Prophecy and Deliverance" and showed pictures of Pinda curing people of ailments. Many in the crowd at his midnight service were gaunt or sickly; some leaned on crutches, and one woman's face was covered in a rash. Pinda promised them all liberation from sickness and pain, if only they believed strongly enough in God.

"You must make war in your life," he shouted. "God does not put his trust in doctors. He doesn't trust doctors because they have their limits. Have faith in the eternal. Doctors can't heal you. Only the eternal can."

Yet his alleged ability to heal is not what has earned Pinda his greatest veneration.

"The pastors with the most onction," Charles explained to me, "are the ones who can cast the demons out of child sorcerers."


Child sorcerers have become a national fixation in large part because revival churches condemn them as the most virulent of all evils. While theories about sorcery abound in Kinshasa, many churches see children as the perfect vectors for bad spirits to wreak havoc on the world. They cannot be avoided because there are so many of them all around. And when spirits invade children, rather than only causing bodily or other pain, they turn their vessels into sorcerers, hiding behind the innocent look of youth and inflicting harm on others. "Child sorcerers scare people more because we don't know when they might act or what weapons they might use. Everyone, everyone is afraid of them," Charles said.

It is true that children are everywhere, requiring care from families, the state, and churches that cannot always be provided. Congo has a very high fertility rate -- six children per woman -- and the country's median age was just 17 in 2010, according to U.N. statistics. And in Kinshasa specifically, there is a booming population of homeless children. Djokaba of REEJER said a 2010 survey suggested some 20,000 children were living on Kinshasa's streets-up from 13,000 in 2007. In 2011, UNICEF estimated the numbers at 30,000. These children are called shegue, an abbreviation of "Che Guevara," because of the toughness they require to survive.

Their ubiquity and susceptibility, however, also make children easy scapegoats. As in the religiously fueled witch hunts of Europe and America centuries ago, which pursued widows or solitary women, perhaps children in Congo are accused of sorcery because they are society's most vulnerable members. Perhaps some are accused, too, because -- in suffering or even in fending for themselves -- they are symbols of the disintegration of family and communal bonds brought on by Congo's decades of struggle. Belgian anthropologist Filip De Boeck has described Kinshasa's children as "the human intersections where the ruptures and fault lines of an African world in transition are manifested."

According to UNICEF, anthropologists, and international and local NGOs, almost anything can trigger an accusation of sorcery: not only sickness, death, or other loss within the family, but also a child's own hunger or illness-even precociousness or adolescent anger. Save the Children has reported that signs include "dirtiness, red lips or eyes, deafness, ugliness, young body but old face, epilepsy"; being "untidy, disobedient, sad, mentally retarded, impolite, full of hatred, mysterious, disrespectful, quick-tempered, unruly"; and behaviors like "do not sleep at night or sleep badly, eat a lot ... wet the bed, defecate in their clothes, talk to themselves, sleepwalk, collect rubbish, wander, don't study, go out even when they are ill."

Children are generally powerless to protest the accusations and have few places from which to seek help. The government is more often an enemy than a friend. In 2013, it launched an operation called Likofi ("Punch" in Lingala) to round up delinquents living on the streets; reportedly, at least 20 people, 12 of them children, were killed. UNICEF, which has said that 70 percent of street children receiving assistance from its programs have been accused of sorcery, provides aid to local shelters, orphanages, vocational training programs, and centers that reintegrate children into their families. But there are more needy children than resources available to help them.

Many children accused of sorcery find refuge in churches because they have no other option or because they believe what is said about them and want help -- ironically searching for it in the very institutions complicit in their misery. I spoke to dozens of children in Kinshasa accused of sorcery, and most appeared confused when asked whether they believed they were possessed. Some simply said no, but others said they must be since a pastor had told them so. Most looked to the nearest adult for guidance on how to answer.

In seeking help from churches, children are taking their chances. Revival churches are not only complicit in ratcheting up fears of child sorcery, but they also profit from them -- when parents pay to have their child exorcised and when parishioners come to see the show. And the churches perpetrate abuse that only boosts their popularity. Congolese told me of pastors rooting out spirits by spitting into children's mouths or pouring the wax of church candles on their bodies until they confessed. One pastor reportedly forced a child to stand in a dark room for days, never letting him sit, and then made him drink olive oil until he vomited. The pastor inspected the vomit to see whether it contained human flesh or money -- both alleged signs of sorcery.

Other pastors, however, offer shelter in addition to superstition. At the church and orphanage Coeur et Mains du Christ ("Heart and Hands of Christ"), I met with pastors Jerôme Anto Kashala and Shium Bukassa Shidisha. They told me about the children they protect, including one boy whose parents blamed him for an illness that killed his brother and accused him of eating the brother's heart. The parents beat him, tied him up, and cut his skin repeatedly with a knife, trying to make him confess. Eventually, they took a discarded tire from trash in the street, put it over him, and set it on fire. He was seriously burned by the time he was able to flee. Today, he is working toward a mechanic's certificate.

Yet the pastors' willingness to care for children accused of sorcery, it seemed, was complicated by their religious convictions. When I asked Kashala and Shidisha whether they had ever encountered any real child sorcerers, they glanced nervously at each other. "Well, there was one," Kashala said. "She posed very difficult problems for us, to the point that she killed another child. She started giving rotten food to the others until finally one died."

Charles was with me, and he nodded gravely, agreeing.

Ultimately, the pastors determined that the girl could not be saved, and they had no choice but to send her away from the orphanage, back to the family that had chased her away in the first place.


After several house of the frenzied late-night service, when Pinda finally called up five children who had been quietly sitting in the corner, the room hushed. The congregants didn't press close as they had during the earlier exorcisms, instead stepping back. I was apprehensive, thinking of the stories of cruel exorcisms.

But the prophet was gentle, encouraging the children to speak. Their eyes were cautious, avoiding the crowd. One by one, they spoke softly, their voices barely audible in Pinda's microphone; he filled in where their words trailed off. A 10-year-old girl explained that, after her mother's death, her father had blamed her. A boy in a Curious George shirt murmured that his parents had died and others in his family had accused him of eating their hearts. A thin 12-year-old boy in a white-striped shirt with his arms crossed, hands under his armpits, said his parents had told him he was a sorcerer and left him alone in Kinshasa; he now made a living selling plastic bags of drinking water in the street.

The drummer in the church band gently tapped a cymbal to punctuate the children's testimonies.

Pinda talked about the failures of parents: "If your child is a sorcerer, you cannot throw him out." He also spoke of children overcoming the demons within them and becoming great men. The audience remained hushed and pensive, Pinda seeming to berate them for their fear of child sorcerers while simultaneously acknowledging that the fear was very real.

Everyone prayed quietly to deliver the children. As the service drew to a close, well after 3 a.m., Pinda's assistants sold small bottles of olive oil around the room and people brought them up for the pastor to bless. They rubbed the oil on their faces, on their arms and chests, in their hair, as protection from evil spirits. Pinda then asked for money to support the continued building of the church.

This wasn't the dramatic scene I had feared I would witness. Was Pinda acting so kindly toward the children because an outsider was there? (He had invited me to his service.) Was he deftly avoiding breaking the law against accusing children of sorcery? Or was something else going on?

I asked Charles. He said sometimes exorcisms of child sorcerers take place in private because they are difficult. Maybe these children had already been saved.

A few days after the service, seeking to understand his strange relationship with the children, I met the prophet in his office -- a small room containing three dilapidated office chairs, a desk, and an electric bass guitar leaning in the corner. Outside, dozens of people waited for private meetings with Pinda. All such meetings, one of his congregants told me, required a payment, however small.

Pinda explained that more than 60 children accused of sorcery lived in his church -- children like the boy who had been sleeping next to the gutter before the night service I attended. They had come to him on their own or had been brought by their parents because of his reputation for casting out spirits. He introduced me to some of them, between the ages of 4 and 12. They had been accused of costing their parents jobs or killing relatives. Some had been told their diseases, like crippling polio, were signs of possession by spirits and had been kicked out of their homes.

As the children left, Pinda picked up the electric bass. He sat back in his chair, plucking the thick strings. In a gravelly voice, he told me it was tiring to have so many children around and that he kept encouraging people not to leave them. He'd even gone to social services for help, only to be turned away.

But did he believe the children were sorcerers? He replied that, for most children, "it's just accusations." Prayer, he explained, generally shows him they aren't possessed. Sometimes, though, parents' testimonies tell him otherwise. So long as parents report that a family member is ill, for instance, a bad spirit must remain in a child, requiring his attention. Some parents bring children back multiple times, until they are able to report to Pinda that "there is peace -- they sleep calmly and there is no more sickness in the family."

Complicating his explanation was the fact that Pinda makes money off these visits and that dealing with children accused of sorcery has enhanced his stature. Perhaps Pinda doesn't want to condemn these children as other pastors do, or perhaps his belief in sorcery isn't as strong or as sure as in others. Yet driving spirits out of children has earned him the title of prophet -- has convinced his congregation that the power of God flows through him and can save them from all the suffering, all the pain and hardship, in their lives. It brings hundreds to his church late at night, to stand for hours in the heat, connected to one another and, they feel, to a power beyond their reach.

I asked him whether he thought he had improved the lives of the accused child sorcerers for whom he prayed. For some he said yes -- one boy, for instance, had been saved and returned to his parents. Then he described a 13-year-old girl whose parents accused her of killing two people. She still lived in the church.

Pinda hesitated.

"She isn't doing well at all. Because this is church," he said. "After prayer, the people leave. Even I go home."