Squeezing a toddler’s eyeballs and shoving his thumb into her tiny nose a Catholic priest purges a child of the devil, one of many exorcisms he carries out every day.

Flicked with holy water, her face smeared with olive oil and poked violently in the stomach, two-and-a-half-year old Angel bursts into tears as she is rid of the evil spirits that lurk within her.

The child wriggles to free herself but her mother holds on firmly, insistent that she endures the exorcism to protect her from the sorcery that many in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) believe controls their lives.

Angel and Grace, an 11-month-old baby exorcised the same day, have been ‘saved’ by the ceremony, the devil banished, and for now they remain safe in their homes.

But tens of thousands of other children in this troubled central African country have been branded ‘child’ witches and flung out onto the streets by their families into a life of destitution, violence and abuse.

MailOnline ventured into the frightening world of the occult in this African heartland, famously described as the ‘heart of darkness’, as part of series examining the challenges facing the United Nations trying to help these children.

In the capital Kinshasa, at the Gallicane Catholic Church, Father Alexis Katziota Mungala talks almost matter of factly of his work releasing thousands of children from the devil.

Exorcism is a daily ritual he performs in his church.

‘These witches they eat human flesh, they drink human blood,’ Father Alexis told MailOnline.

‘It is the work of the devil. Witchcraft kills the love within the child. It fills them with hate, it makes them eat their father, fight with their brother.

‘Witchcraft is part of our tradition; it is part of Congolese culture.

‘Children can become infected with sorcery but we carry out exorcisms to help children find their families again.’

Those who cannot be ‘saved’ scavenge an existence in the violent, filth-ridden city abandoned by their families and feared by their fellow outcasts.

It is estimated that up to 50,000 children have been accused of witchcraft and left to fend for themselves in the sprawling slums where 20 million live.

Some are newly born or bewildered toddlers thrown into a nightmare world where survival is by crime, prostitution and violence.

Dorcas, aged eight, is typical of the ‘child witches’. Traumatised, she was found five days ago, her puny body riddled with lice, fleas and ticks.

Found by workers dedicated to helping the street children, she was taken to a care centre where half-starved she wolfed down a bowl of stale bread and a beaker of sweet tea in silence.

Although she has barely spoken since, she has said enough for the volunteers here to know her story is heart-wrenchingly common.

‘She was accused of being a witch,’ care centre director Claudine Nlandu told MailOnline.

‘I don’t know how long she had been living on the streets. She came here five days ago. She was covered in fleas, lice and ticks when we found her.

‘She did not tell us her name so the other girls called her Dorcas.’

Another is six-year-old Malengeli–stick-thin with sores all over his malnourished body–he has not been as ‘lucky’ as Dorcas and still roams the streets begging for handouts.

The litany of ‘crimes’ attributed to such children is beyond medieval in scale and almost impossible to comprehend in our society.

These youngsters are accused of killing relatives by eating their flesh and drinking their blood in the dead of night.

They are accused of casting spells–delivering death, illness, unemployment, pregnancy, debt, or simply bad luck–to any or all around. But possibly worst of all they are accused of being evil–having the devil living within them.

These cruel and unfounded accusations cause misery for tens of thousands of children not only across the Democratic Republic of Congo but also in other parts of central and west Africa.

‘Children accused of witchcraft are subject to psychological violence, first by family members and their circle of friends, then by church pastors or traditional healers,‘ a UNICEF study by Aleksander Cimpric, entitled Children Accused of Witchcraft, found.

‘Once accused of witchcraft, children are stigmatized and discriminated against for life. Children accused of witchcraft may be killed, although more often they are abandoned by their parents and live on the streets.’

Deeply suspicious and steeped in mysticism the existence of child-witchcraft is deep-rooted in Congolese culture.

‘Child witchcraft is part of our tradition,’ Etienne Maleke, who has worked with Kinshasa’s street children for over 20 years, told MailOnline.

‘All of the boys here at the shelter have been accused of being witches.’

But the collapse of the economy in the 1990s following mass lootings by the unpaid army and the following chaos of two devastating wars turned this phenomenon into an epidemic.

Witchcraft was often used to simply rid a household of an unwanted mouth to feed.

Remy Mafu, of the street children charity REEJER, said: ‘Here in Central Africa every development within the family–a death, unemployment, bad school marks, and an unexpected pregnancy–demands an explanation.

‘If there is no explanation then it is considered witchcraft.

‘Poverty is a real driver. People don’t want to take care of children so they accuse them of being witches.

‘When there’s a breakdown in the family unwanted children–often step-children, nieces and nephews – are accusations of child witchcraft.

‘Children who do not bring anything into the household are accused of being witches.’

One of the last parts of Africa to experience European ideas, the tribes of Congo embraced Catholic missionaries who brought modern medicine, education and their religion to the far reaches of this vast nation.

But just over a hundred years after Belgium claimed Congo as a colony the traditional ideas of sorcery remain.

However the rise of child-witchcraft is a recent phenomenon linked to the breakdown of the traditional extended family, according to the leading authority on ‘child witches’, Professor Filip de Boeck, of Belgium’s University of Leuven.

In his book, ‘The Devil’s Children’, he wrote: ‘The phenomenon of ‘child witches’ is a thoroughly modern phenomenon that is shaped by global capitalism.

‘Contrary to older forms, the witchcraft ‘new style’ is experienced as being wild, random and unpredictable.’

And it is through this mixture of religious beliefs that families try to ‘cure’ the children in their care of witchcraft.

Catholic and Evangelical churches and animist religious centres confirm accusations of sorcery as well as providing remedies for youngsters who may otherwise be thrown into the gutter.

Catholic priest Father Alexis said: ‘I have saved thousands of children. Today I saved three children from sorcery. Every day I must save a child.

‘I hold exorcisms twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.

He added: ‘We are Catholic missionaries so it is our duty to carry out exorcisms.

‘We have a way to shoo away the sorcery, to chase away the demons.

‘We tell the family not to throw their children out onto the street. We tell them to pray for the child.’

Along with hours of prayer the ‘child witch’ must endure being purged with salt-water and oil.

Evangelical preachers promise their congregation immediate relief from the ‘child witches’ within their community.

Pastor Jean-Pierre Kwete, of the Laodice Church, Kinshasa, told MailOnline: ‘There are conscious witches who know they are evil and unconscious witches who do not know but get up in the middle of the night and eat human flesh.

‘I can tell if a child is a witch just by looking at them. I can see it in their eyes.’

And if parents are reluctant to call in Catholic or Evangelical ‘saviours’ then they can turn to more ancient rites.

Animist preachers offer a different way to rid children of the devil.

Inside a corrugated iron structure, deep inside a Kinshasa slum, children knee in front of a small charcoal fire.

The smoke from specially chosen herbs is wafted into their faces as a high priestess sprinkles them with holy water as part of rituals designed to rid the youngsters of evil and protect them from the devil.

All around the congregation chant and dance as African drums beat out a hypnotic rhythm.

Preacher Bangadi-Kikongo Nkakama, of the traditional Kaba Dia Bana Ba Mpeve spiritual centre, claims to have saved over 800 children this year from sorcery.

He told MailOnline: ‘Ours is the religion of the Congo before colonisation. We worship nature and the spirits around us. We understand about mysticism.

‘The spirit has given us the strength to treat case of witchcraft, the spirits inspire us to cure the ill.’

Other priests are more brutal–shoving their fingers into a ‘child witch’s’ mouth in search of the flesh of recently deceased relatives.

One victim told MailOnline how she was beaten and starved after she was accused of being a witch, aged just eight.

Therese, now 18, who is epileptic and has a large cyst on her forehead, said: ‘I was quietly living with my parents but a relative said I was a witch.

‘When my grandmother died they said it was my fault.

‘They took me to a church where they pray for children. I was made to drink salt-water, lots of it. They stuck their fingers in my mouth, down my throat.

‘They wanted to take out pieces of my grandmother that they thought I had eaten. They couldn’t find anything so they kept me and beat me.

‘This bump on my head is a cyst but in the church they told me it was where the witchcraft lived.

‘There was nothing to eat. I escaped and went out onto the street and begged. I picked up anything from the ground I could find–old food, anything.

‘I have been in five different orphanages. I came here and told the mother I had nowhere else to go.

‘I still suffer epileptic fits.’

Therese’ heart-breaking story is one of many to be heard at the centre for girls living on the streets where Dorcas has found sanctuary.

Others tell how they were thrown out of their home by relatives–uncles, aunts, step-mothers, remarried fathers–who accused them of witchcraft.

Most say they begged to be allowed back but were beaten so badly they could not return.

Many have been raped. Some work as prostitutes to survive. Few remain children.

Care Centre director Claudine Nlandu told MailOnline: ‘Some of the children accept life here others refuse. Some prefer to stay on the streets. They can come and go as they please. We are just a point of help, a sanctuary.

‘Some of the girls prostitute themselves. We try to help them protect themselves from disease. We urge them to use condoms.

‘Two or three times a week we go out on to the streets seeking young girls in difficulty.

‘Market traders and hawkers tell us about new girls who have come on to the street.

‘The girls hang around the big markets, the stadiums, the major junctions of the city. Often they have been raped.

‘They tell me they have been accused of being witches.

‘We hope to give them a good life. We teach them to read and write. We teach them trades–hair dressing, restaurant skills and dressmaking.

‘Often when we get in touch with their family they say they don’t want the child anymore and that we can have them as a ‘gift’.’

Tragically newborn babies are also condemned as witches–if they are born to so-called child-witches.

Remy Mafu said: ‘Two babies are born on the streets of Kinshasa every day to girls who have been condemned as child witches. Their children are considered witches by inheritance.

‘We know girls aged 12 who become pregnant. Once they are on the street they are no longer children.’

Others are considered in league with the devil due to the disabilities they suffer–like Jeremy, 10, who is deaf and Bienvenue, 9, who has paralysis in his arms and legs following an attack of cerebral malaria.

Etienne Maleke, director of a street children shelter for boys, told MailOnline: ‘Jeremy is deaf. He was chased out of his home by his family. We don’t know how badly he was mistreated.

‘Bienvenue suffered paralysis as a complication from meningitis and malaria. His mother died when he was still a baby.

‘His aunt was looking after him but she threw him out.

‘We tracked down his father and we took him back to his family.

‘But within a month he was back on the streets.’

Papa Etienne, as he is known by the thousands of children he has helped added: ‘When they come here the boys are feral. We have to teach them how to eat an egg, how to eat a fish.

‘They only want the clothes on their backs. If you give them two shirts it becomes a burden.

‘We help them in every way we can. We feed them, teach them, help them sort out pay disputes with people they work for.

‘I know many boys who have become successful.

‘There was one boy who was very bright. We encouraged him to stay at school, to go to university, he wasn’t convinced to start with.

‘Now he is a doctor. I asked him to come to talk to the boys. He still calls me “papa”.

‘The government needs to educate the people that there are no such things as child witches.’

Ensuring these children lead healthy lives; are able to go to school; are allowed to participate fully in society and can be treated fairly, are among the 17 sustainable development goals adopted by the United Nations last month.

The ambitious new set of aims hopes to end poverty, hunger, advance equality and protect the environment over the next 15 years.

UNICEF works with local charities that support street children and other vulnerable youngsters accused of witchcraft.

‘UNICEF is particularly concerned about the issues of the most vulnerable children including children who suffer violence, abuse and exploitation,’ spokesman Yves Willemot told MailOnline.

‘A change in attitudes about sorcery should be promoted by educating families, community leaders and working with accusers, church leaders and traditional religious practitioners.

‘The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child apply to all children without exception.’

Tragically such laudable aims will come too late to save the likes of Dorcas, Malangeli, Jeremy, and Bienvenue.

But it is at least a recognition of an evil being visited on DRC’s children which has nothing in truth to do with witchcraft.

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