GENEVA — It may sound like hocus-pocus, but with the growing influx of African migrants, social services in Switzerland are having to tackle a new and perplexing problem: witchcraft.
The phenomenon specifically involves African women — mostly prostitutes from Nigeria — who were "bewitched" before leaving home and suffer serious psychological consequences as a result. For Swiss social services, the challenge is twofold: to understand the issue, however irrational it may seem; and to treat it — to ease the suffering these women experience.
The criminal networks that send the Nigerian women to Europe demand they pay vast sums of money, between 50,000 and 80,000 Swiss francs (46,000 to 73,000 euros) — about 10 to 20 times the real cost of the journey. To keep these women under their control, they use all means at their disposal: direct physical threats, threats against their families back home and religion.
They're so certain that something will happen to them if they disobey that, once the ritual is over, they behave like their recruiters' slaves
Before they leave their home country, the future prostitutes are taken to a sorcerer. The man takes samples of hair, pubic hair and nails; and he puts it all in a box. Simultaneously, he incises their skin and introduces in the wounds a decoction made with herbs and blood. In doing so, according to the African tradition "juju," the sorcerer gains control over the young women to such a degree that he can kill them or drive them crazy remotely if they don't repay their debts.
"Prostitution networks very often use the figure of Eshu, the god of players and cheats, a character known for traveling inside people's dreams," says Stephan Fuchs, a Nigerian migration expert and founder of the website Trafficking.ch. "From early in childhood, these girls have been living in a world where magic was everywhere, so they're terrified. They're so certain that something will happen to them if they disobey that, once the ritual is over, they behave like their recruiters' slaves."
Their distress is such that it causes great psychic disorders. Fuchs mentions the case of one African woman who lives safely in a Swiss home but is hounded by her fear of the curse. One day, the woman was found convulsing. She was taken to the hospital. A few hours later, however, she couldn't even remember the episode. And over the next few days, the same thing happened repeatedly.
"These women would like to be free, but they don't know how to do it," says Gifty Amponsah, a young migrant woman from Ghana. "Since they don't have any other means of living than prostitution, most of the time they choose to obey their pimps and pay their dues. But it takes them years. And by the time they no longer have anything to fear, they've often become incapable of empathy. Many of them then become pimps themselves and recruit girls."
Some of them sleep with a Bible on their pillow to stop Eshu from invading their dreams
Still, there are ways for them to free themselves sooner. "To neutralize the juju gods, you need to turn to a more powerful God, to Jesus," Amponsah says. "It's not easy convincing African women of his power. But it works. If sorcerers do magic, the God of the Christians performs miracles. So long as you believe in him, he gives us back our self-confidence and frees us. You'd be surprised by the number of illiterate African prostitutes who own a Bible. They're incapable of reading it, but they all hope its presence will protect them."
Stephan Fuchs confirms this. "Some of them sleep with a Bible on their pillow to stop Eshu from invading their dreams," he says.
Maria Rio Benito, a psychiatrist working for an association in Lausanne, gave psychological help to one such victim of juju. She was a Nigerian asylum seeker who was terrified of two people living far away: one female pimp established in a southern Spain and a man still in Africa. "This young woman had classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: repeated nightmares, invalidating anxiety crises and deep social isolation. In all cultures, there are influence mechanisms that can either cure or harm," she says. "The juju phenomenon must be considered in the wider context of the social precariousness of its victims. And it needs to be treated as such."
Rio Benito tried to relieve the young woman using a multi-step psycho-traumatology treatment. Step one was to help the woman feel physical safe. From there the doctor and patient could begin confronting the symptoms. The experience was positive. The patient made great progress. She learned French and got involved in female socialization groups. But then she abruptly terminated the whole process after she was denied asylum. Having become an illegal immigrant, she stopped coming to the consultations.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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