In Nigeria beautiful, innocent children, as young as two years of age, are tortured, abandoned and killed by their own parents, family and community members. In a land stricken by poverty and illiteracy self-styled deliverance pastors and prophets have over the years branded thousands of children as witches. Leonardo Rocha Dos Santos, cofounder and director of the Brazilian organization Way to the Nations, leads an orphanage in Nigeria that provides a safe place for the rescued children. In this interview he graphically illustrates the disturbing darkness that blankets the country of Nigeria.
Tihomir: Since 2009, when some UK media extensively covered the Nigerian tragedy, not much has been written or covered by the international press until recently. Has the problem diminished over the years?
Leonardo: Over the past four years, since I've been involved in the rescue mission of the falsely branded children as witches, the number of tortured and killed children has not decreased. I've seen many cases, and some very dramatic ones. We are present with our rescue work only in one of the three Nigerian states, the one with the Christian population. The so-called witch children are tortured and killed also in Cameron and Angola, and the UNICEF report calls the situation in Congo as critical. Some international organizations are talking about thousands of stigmatized children. I have met at least 400 cases of tortured, abandoned or killed children. Only two moths ago we rescued four children who were to be murdered together, at the same time. We received a distress telephone call one night from someone who had heard about our organization.
Tihomir: What is the role of Helen Ukpabio, a founder of a controversial Liberty Foundation and her exorcism "ministry" in exciting the violence against children in Nigeria?
Leonardo: The problem has really escalated since 1999 when Helen Ukpabio produced a horror movie, End of the Wicked. The movie and her exorcism "ministry" have provided a leading inspiration for many deaths of children in Nigeria and surrounding countries. She is at this time visiting the U.K.. If I were to speak publicly, or in churches in the U.K. or U.S. teaching how to make bombs I would be arrested immediately because bombs kill people. Yet this woman, whose public work is turning parents into murderers of their own children, has been allowed to visit the U.K. where she is performing her deliverance séances and exorcisms on children at this moment.
Tihomir: Give us an overview, how do Nigerian parents become murderers of their own children?
Leonardo: The problem flourishes in those African countries where Christianity has blended with native pagan religions. They are a fertile ground for superstition. Most of the rescue cases that involve our work start in the church environments in which deliverance ministries, prosperity gospel and dominion theology have taken a central stage. Self-styled pastors and prophets, greedy for cash, teach their parishioners that many problems they are facing, like poverty, joblessness, financial crisis, sickness or poor harvest -- are all caused by a witch-child hiding in their families. Then those pastors promise that they would cast the witch spirits out of their children. For their deliverance séances they charge poor parents the amounts which most of them are not able to pay. Then, the superstitious parents are starting to guess which of their six, seven or eight children is a witch. They end up choosing the one who has something different about him or her -- one who is the most mischievous, strong willed or the most intelligent among the children in the big family or the one who already has some serious health condition. We knew a child who had epilepsy. His parents were convinced that the boy was possessed by a witch-spirit. The children are then forced, through torture, to confess that they are witches. Those children always end up severely beaten, cast out of their homes into the dark streets and forests, mutilated and often killed. All of this is due to a blend of Christianity and native paganism that has been brought inside the church in Nigeria. Most of the killer parents claim that they are born-again and spirit-led Christians.
Tihomir: Could you share a few concrete cases?
Leonardo: The case that still breaks my heart happened in October 2012. Michael, an 11-year-old-boy was brought to our center with a big, almost fatal wound on his head. His father and his uncle wanted to kill him. Our team rescued him and registered the case with the police. His father, who claims to be a prophet, accused Michael during a church service of being a witch. He blamed him for his joblessness and his failed marriage. We wanted to keep the boy in our orphanage because he was seriously injured, and his life was under the threat as long as he stayed with his father and close to his uncle. Our organization worked hard to get the guardianship approved by the social welfare office. Meanwhile Michael was ordered by the police to stay with his father, who starved him every day and would not let him stay in the house. One day, as he was about to move to our center, Michael disappeared. We spent more than a month visiting every village in the radius of 30 kilometers. The chief of the village where Michael used to live told me, "I know the boy's father and uncle very well. They are very violent people. I am quite sure that this boy has been buried somewhere around his house." This was very hard for me, because I had this boy sitting on my lap, eating with me. He loved to talk with me. He was a very bright and sweet boy. When we realized that the child had disappeared we told the police. Nothing was done, no investigation. He's gone, just wiped out of the history like that, without any investigation.
Tihomir: I just want to make sure I understood you correctly. You believe that the boy's father or uncle, or both killed him?
Leonardo: Yes. Everybody believes it. The neighbors believe it. The chief of the village believes it. I believe it too.
Tihomir: What is the Nigerian government doing about the cases like Michael's? Is it able to do anything?
Leonardo: In 2008 the government approved the Child Rights Law. It became illegal and a criminal activity to label children as witches. But the law was never seriously enforced. One year ago a father beheaded his son because the father believed his son was a witch. The boy was starving in the streets, without anyone wanting to help him. Once he came to the back of his house and asked his brother for a bowl of soup. His father heard his voice, ran after him and chopped his head off with an axe. This man worked for the government as a public servant. He was arrested and let go one day later because of "lack of evidence." Another case: A father, who was a policeman, marched his eight-year-old daughter naked through the village, with the AK-47 in his hands. He humiliated her publicly because he believed she was a witch. He too was arrested and released two days later due to "lack of evidence."
Tihomir: I hear that this eight-year-old girl now lives under the protection of your organization?
Leonardo: Our team met the girl in the local hospital, recovering from the serious injuries his father inflicted on her body. She was placed in the bed next to one of our children who was treated there as well. Her mother also heard about what happened to her daughter, and came to the hospital to look after her, but being without a job she could not take care of her and the other child that lived with her. We decided to employ her as one of the caregivers for the children that we have in our center. The mother and her two children are now safe in our center.
Tihomir: Your mission statement states: "Way to the Nations is an international organization dedicated to fighting ignorance, eradicating superstition and to the rescue, support and rehabilitation of children branded by church leaders and their parents as witches." Tell us more.
Leonardo: In 2004 a movement, Way of Grace, started in Brazil. It was initiated by pastor Caio Fabio. Inspired by his practical exposition of the Gospel a group of friends decided to dedicate their lives to living practically Jesus' command to "love our neighbors." Way to the Nations was born to serve others who are less fortunate. We went to Nigeria for the first time in 2010. Since then we developed projects in Senegal and Northeast Brazil too. Now we are well established in Nigeria, with a staff of eight people.
Tihomir: In Nigeria we see an ugly demonstration of what happens when the so-called prosperity gospel is radicalized to the extreme. We see the so-called pastors, prophets and evangelists get obscenely rich at the expense of their poor parishioners. It seems that your mission also targets such a perverted religious establishment.
Leonardo: Much more could be achieved if we could succeed in changing the minds of pastors. But many pastors are not about being spiritual shepherds. They are about getting rich. The wealth of some popular pastors and evangelists in Nigeria could compare with the wealth of some of the wealthiest mega evangelists and pastors in the U.S. This is obscene when placed against the culture of extreme poverty in Nigeria. I've often asked Nigerian pastors, "Why don't you do something to stop the superstition that leads to so many deaths of innocent children?" I asked one of them if he believed that children in Nigeria were witches. He said, "If Jesus would cast demons into pigs, why couldn't demons go into children too?" And he is the pastor of a huge church; when he walks behind the pulpit to preach, he enters as if he were a rock-star. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen any church in Nigeria with any program that addresses the issue of children falsely accused as witches.
Tihomir: Your website features a photo of a group of rescued children, cared by your organization, all nicely dressed on their way to school. Your work is a sign of hope in Nigeria.
Leonardo: At this time we have about 30 children in our center. We want to give them their lives back, to help them and to give them love and opportunity. Two of them are doing courses in skill acquisition. Not long ago one of them started a welding course. There is a girl in our center who is training to become a hairdresser. One year ago it was such a blessing to have with us Dr. Tony Edet, who spent three months with us in the orphanage treating the children. His wife Alicja was helping too, looking after the children and teaching them good habits. We feel privileged to have taken this challenge, given to us by our Brazilian pastor. We are glad to see that God is doing something good through us in Nigeria. Any saved young life in Nigeria is worth the sacrifice.