Gaza city – Suad, 22 years old, still suffers from mental problems and chronic depression after being raped at the hands of a witch doctor. Her husband had turned to him in hopes of banishing the “spirits” living in his wife. In the months after their wedding, he says, the “spirits” had turned their married life upside down.
Lack of communication and cultural differences between Suad, raised in Britain, and her cousin, to whom she was engaged following her return to Gaza a year earlier, worsened their marital problems.
“After several marital problems, my husband decided to take me to the witch doctor in Khan Yunis, despite my objection,” says Suad. “During the third session, the witch doctor, known as Abu Amin, refused to let my husband accompany me into the room. He forced me to lie on an iron bed. He sprinkled my face and body with water that smelled like herbs.
“He began to caress my body and recite strange chants. A short while later he attacked and raped me. I screamed, but to no avail. My husband did not save me. Neither did any of the women who were waiting their turn at the clinic.”
Suad, brown-skinned with honey-colored eyes, grew red in the face. Her body shook suddenly and her teeth chattered. But she insisted on continuing with her story.
The witch doctor wore a short jalabiyya. His clinic was filled with the smell of incense and herbs, said Suad, as she continued to describe the details of her rape.
Her husband refused to believe her. The witch doctor had convinced him that the “spirit” had “complete power over her.”
After paying the sheikh $900, her husband decided to divorce her. Suad turned to a psychological counselor at a UNRWA medical clinic. Her mother-in-law threatened to destroy her reputation if she made her story public.
Suad’s story was the beginning of a trail into the world of the witch doctors, where people are deeply reluctant to speak out against them, fearing the scorn of their conservative society. As a result no adequate legal actions are taken to curb the practices of the men known by the people as “the Sheikhs.”
Suad is the only one who has come forward with her story. Meanwhile, a Quranic counselor who works north of Gaza City told us of two other women who had similar experiences at the hands of two other witch doctors. But they refuse to talk about it.
Rape, Murder and Beatings
The doors are open to anyone who wants to work as a witch doctor, as long as they have the slightest ability to charm and convince. To those who want to speak out against them, however, the doors are closed. Rumors spread quickly within the dense neighborhoods of this conservative society. People fear the shame such public criticism could bring.
The phenomenon of witch doctors has been growing and spreading throughout Gaza. Police estimate there are about 1,000 witch doctors lurking in Gaza’s neighborhoods. Dozens of others manage to escape the watchful eye of the authorities. Little is known about the details of their wealth or how much they earn. The only exceptions are the handful of cases that have been exposed to the public, or when people have complained. Many continue to work freely, thanks to weak laws, insufficient efforts to combat them, ignorance among families, and reluctance of victims to register official complaints.
In most cases that come before the courts, the witch doctors are charged with the misdemeanor offenses of beating and sexual assault. According to the law enforced in Gaza, the Palestinian Penal Code of 1963, victims must provide material evidence of rape or sexual assault, but many are reluctant to do so. Instead, the witch doctor simply signs a pledge to the police not to practice witchcraft and manipulation, and then is set free without ever being sent before a judge or held accountable.
Article 307 of the Palestinian Penal Code (Law Number 74 of 1936, from the days of the British Mandate) states that “any person who gains income or reward from the practice of any form of magic or witchcraft, tell fortunes, claims discover the unknown things and knows how to find them, or employs knowledge of astrology or magic for financial reward, is viewed to have committed a misdemeanor and is liable to one year imprisonment.”
When we paid visit to one of the witch doctors, we were struck by the number of patients in the corridor. A friend of ours, who is a regular visitor there, waited outside the room during the “therapy session.” This allowed us to ask those present how much they paid for each session.
While most patients pay in excess of $50 per session, there are reports of patients paying as much as $2,500 for a series of sessions over a period of three to four months. During our afternoon visit, which lasted three hours, we saw that the witch doctor had about 30 patients (or victims) per day. Given these figures, we estimate his average daily income to be about $1,500. By contrast, average per capita income in Gaza is $500 per month.
During our visit we heard the witch doctor chanting the Qur’an inside the room. Then we heard our friend cry out as the witch doctor beat his feet in order to expel the spirits.
“He tied my feet and turned his back to me,” our friend said as he came out. “He said over and over: ‘Get out! Get out!’ He slapped the soles of my feet with a bamboo stick until the overwhelming pain caused me to pass out.”
He continued: “Then he sprinkled water on my face and made an appointment for me to return in a week’s time. In the meantime, he instructed me to bathe myself with the water he gave me.”
Umm Younis was the only witch doctor who agreed to speak with us, on condition that we used the word “clairvoyant” instead of “witch doctor.” For 20 years she has worked to “match singles, bring husbands and wives closer together, and free women from their inability to have children,” she told us.
The elderly Umm Younis cited her age and said that she knows that what she does is right. She learned the trade from her father, and he learned from his mother. It is her only skill, for which she earns $150 a day.
Umm Younis was wearing tattered clothes and a large nose ring. Under her chin we saw the images of three long green drops. She asks most of her female clients to bring something that reminds them of the spirit. Then she burns it, mixing some of the material with another shred of fabric or human hair. She tells the women to burn it as incense or spread the ashes cross the entrance to their home.
According to patients we spoke with, one of the remedies most frequently prescribed by witch doctors are viscous mixtures of water and herbs. They told us of papers lined with words written upside down. One of the strangest prescriptions was a “tortoise,” for which the patient paid $40 after the witch doctor told him that it would banish fear with its steps as it walked back and forth in his home.
The “Clients” and their Tragedies
During this investigation we uncovered the story of Alia, 35. According to the medical report by Shifa’a Hospital dated 20 January 2004, she died of food poisoning. Her family said that she had taken a liquid potion prescribed by a witch doctor following her visit that year. The family members did not accuse anyone for the “murder of their daughter,” or at least not for any crimes that her father was willing to disclose. Her father, clearly scared as he began to tell us Alia’s story, acknowledged the reluctance and conservatism of the family.
Alia never finished high school. She married three times and divorced each time without ever having a child. She said one of her husbands wanted her to come back and caused problems. She wanted to end it. With the consent of her parents, she decided to visit a witch doctor. The witch doctor convinced her that anybody who drank the potion “would be rid of their husbands. As soon as she consumed the potion, her husband would be gone,” her father recalls. The witch doctor prescribed for her a remedy to “expel the spirits” that consisted of two liters of boiled oil mixed with herbs. Five hours after taking the “therapeutic solution” her dead body was brought to the hospital.
Mohammad Fathi Al-Afifi, an internal medicine doctor, confirmed that Alia drank “enough of the unnatural boiled-oil mixture to kill her, especially since the human body is not capable of naturally digesting so much fat.”
Al-Afifi expressed his doubts about the witch doctor’s prescription for Alia: “The prescribed herbs exceeded the proper dosage, given what we know about the type and way of using the herbs, and the natural remedies and treatments that can be derived from them. Careful studies have shown the precise amounts to be taken, what type and what interactions may be. Some herbs are particularly dangerous for people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease because it negatively impacts their health.”
“Alia was suffering from a stomach ulcer,” according to her mother. Her family did not mention the type or amount of medicine she took to Dr. Al-Afifi, when attended to Alia at her death five hours after consuming the mixture prescribed by the witch doctor.
Another story is that of Ma’amoon, 50, who suffered from cyanosis of the neck, low blood pressure and a burning sensation for two months – a result of beating by a witch doctor on 1 March 2012. The witch doctor convinced him that an “abscess” on his lower neck was a “parasitic spirit.”
Meanwhile, Hazem, 30, went through a similar experience that left him paralyzed. “I was injured during the 2007 conflict between Fatah and Hamas. I suffered continuous humiliation at the hands of the fighters. I fell into a long period of depression which only grew more severe as the doctors were unable to remove the bullets from my leg.” A friend referred him to the witch doctor, who gave him yellow herbs to bathe in. Then he began to hold his legs over a fire to expel the spirit, until he lost the ability to move them.
Hazem got his revenge without resorting to the police. He got a group of his friends to attack and beat the witch doctor until his legs were broken.
Confirmation from the Police
Maj. Amin Al-Batniji, spokesman for the Gaza Police Force, confirmed the death of one 40-year old woman as a result of repeated blows to the head during a session with a witch doctor. “He has been referred to the General Prosecutor,” Al-Batniji said, stressing that “many cases of death are a result of severe and sustained beating. This victim did not die immediately. Her family wishes to maintain privacy for fear of scandal or the witch doctor himself.”
Al-Batniji added that the evidence seized from the witch doctor did not show any proof that he was spying for Israel, as some have claimed, or that he engaged in rape or sexual assault. He was released after signing a pledge not to practice magic or witchcraft – without appearing before the prosecutor. Al-Batniji acknowledges that under the Palestinian Penal Code they could be imprisoned for up to a year.
The lax manner in which the witch doctors are punished only encourages them. He did not move against a 23-year-old girl, who was practicing witchcraft in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip because they did not find sufficient incriminating evidence against her. “I was only able to pressure her,” said Al-Batniji. “She signed a pledge never to practice witchcraft again.”
Referrals by Family and Friends
Most victims who escape the secrecy of the witch doctors’ dens are women. He acknowledges that many of the witch doctors remain unknown due to the cultural pressure against reporting them. In our survey of 70 people who had visited witch doctors, we found that 98 percent of them learned about the witch doctor through friends or acquaintances while only 2 percent said they learned about them by chance.
Forty percent of individuals who had stopped going to the witch doctors have since sought treatment for chronic illness resulting from the treatment they received. We consulted five government and private health centers, all of whom confirmed that they have never received any patients with illness resulting from witch doctors’ treatments. But at Shafa’a Hospital – one of the largest hospitals in Gaza – one doctor (who did not want to be named) said he has had two cases of death as a result of severe beating by witch doctors. The first was a woman in her early forties, the second a girl in her twenties.
A 76 Year Old Law!
In the four stories we described, the victims refused to identify the witch doctors, fearing retaliation from them or their desire to recover their rights by force.
Salama Basiso, vice president of the Gaza Bar Association, confirmed that under the Penal Code, any person who practices witchcraft or sorcery can be indicted, “on condition that they receive financial gain or reward. This does not include Quranic counselors, who do not receive any reward for the services they provide.”
Basiso could confirm only one case of this type, “in which a person accused a witch doctor of stealing his money and physically injuring him 14 years ago.” As Basiso could recall, “the number of cases in which people levied complaints against witch doctors and asked lawyers to prosecute them has not exceeded 10 in the last 20 years.”
Dr. Abd Al-Raouf Al-Jalbi, president of the Supreme Judicial Council in Gaza, says there is nothing to prevent an amendment of the Palestinian Penal Code with respect to the practice of witchcraft and magic.
He says that the ambiguity that surrounds cases against witch doctors is due to the reluctance of citizens to report them. The law will need an especially strong reason to change and develop – and that reason cannot be found in Gaza. “Victims prefer to waive their rights rather than assert them,” he said.
The director of the Independent Commission for Civil Rights in Gaza and the Northern Strip, the lawyer Saleh Abd al-‘Aty, said there lack of awareness among victims of their rights and a reluctance to claim them. His office has handled no complaints of such nature.
“A majority of the illnesses or injuries that would drive citizens to speak out against the witch doctors are related to sensitive issues,” Al-‘Aty said. “People are reluctant to bring complaints to Human Rights Centers or the police because they don’t want other people to know about it.”
“An Eye for an Eye”
Some victims chose to recover their rights by force, though cases of revenge killings are rare, according to the police. In one case, the only one of its kind known to police and the Center for Human Rights in Gaza, Jabri Abu Qines, a 62-year -old witch doctor was killed during Ramadan 2010. An unknown person opened fire on her as she sat with her husband at the door of her home in the Shiekh Radwan neighborhood in central Gaza. The incident sparked retaliation against the assailant
Throughout our research of the witch doctors and their victims, it was clear that they had a diverse range of ages and cultural backgrounds. Our survey showed that 66 percent of them had high school degrees, 30 percent had university degrees and only 4 percent were illiterate.
Seventy-eight percent of visitors are women, while 22 per cent of the men were persuaded by women to visit the witch doctors, our survey showed.
The survey showed that young women visit witch doctors more often; 48 percent are between the ages of 20 and 30, while only 30 percent are over age 40 and the remainder are somewhere within the two categories.
Dr. Mohammad Abu Shaban, a professor of Islamic law at the Islamic University and the architect of a plan to combat witch doctors, agreed with our survey results about the backgrounds of visitors to witch doctors, and the fact that most of them were women.
Abu Shaban unveiled his drive as rumors spread about the burning of “spirits” in the homes of Dir Balah, a city in the Central governorate. Around the same time, on 12 December 2011, the police announced their campaign against witch doctors.
Dr. Abu Shaban’s plan, which he presented to the Interior Ministry, calls for the formation of a council to monitor the witch doctors,to gather ethical and security information about them, to monitor their treatment of patients, and to notify police when they should be arrested. Witch doctors would be referred to second Sharia council, composed of prominent legal scholars in Gaza, which would determine whether deliver treatment that follows the tenets of the Holy Qur’an or is simply the practice witchcraft for profit. A witch doctor will be required to sign a pledge not to practice anymore, and then will be referred back to the monitoring committee. If he does not keep his promise, he will be referred to the Gaza Courts.
The Interior Ministry has not commented on Dr. Abu Shaban’s plan. However, he added that “a representative from the Ministry asked for the names of known and practicing witch doctors so that they can be arrested. I’m sure they refused me because they are incapable of fighting the problem. They would use violence and beating.” And he has not escaped the notice of Ayman Al-Batniji of the Gaza Police.
Abu Shaban’s plan was announced before the Gaza Police launched their campaign to catch witch doctors.
According to a study by professor of Sharia law at the Islamic University of Gaza, most of the “victims of witch doctors are women who turn to them to address marital relationships, fertility, or psychological problems that they believe are caused by “spirits” casting spells over them. They in turn confide in the witch doctors.”
The witch doctors are often meticulous about their outward appearance. They smoke and they wear a short jalabiyya, golden jewelry and grow beards.
A witch doctor’s clinic is filled with the smells of herbs and plants – “hibiscus, nettle and purslane” – which they use to create their remedies, most of them in liquid form.
The witch doctors often tell their patients to burn as incense plants often used in alternative medicine, such as asafetida and rue. They also give their patients perfumes. The clinics of those witch doctors, who like to be publicly known as a “sheikh,” display inscriptions of the first suras of the Qur’an written in reverse. Some will ask them to sacrifice animals with specific magical traits in order to get them to pay more money. This is not to mention the hymns, incomprehensible chants and verses from the Holy Qur’an.
One witch doctor directed a woman to enclose herself in a darkened room for 40 days and not bathe during that time. Another told a patient to bathe in the sea seven times after sunset. Some call out to strange names. There are times when the patient believes that the beating is a treatment to expel the spirits.
The witch doctors can be found in both the large cities and small towns of the periphery. All work in complete secrecy away from the prying eyes of the police. They do not have any professional associations. They manipulate and draw people in by reading aloud from the Qur’an.
Hidden wealth and suspicious relationships
After the campaign was launched, 142 individuals from across all governorates were accused of practicing witchcraft. They signed pledges not to return to witchcraft. They continue to be monitored and some security measures have been taken, though the nature and reason for these measures were not disclosed by the police’s Public Information Office. Neighbors of the arrested witch doctors said that police raided their dwellings, burned papers they used in witchcraft as well as some blankets. The police have not announced an end date for the campaign.
However, Ayman al-Batniji of the Police’s Public Information Office denied that the police burned any of the arrested witch doctors’ property, saying only that they signed pledges not to return to witchcraft and magic. Al-Batniji acknowledged that the commitments do not guarantee that they won’t return to practicing witchcraft.
In January 2011, the Division of Preaching and Guidance at the Ministry of Waqaf and Religious Affairs held a workshop entitled “The phenomenon of witchcraft and witch doctors and their impact on individuals and society.” During the event, Mansur Hamad, Deputy Director for Public Investigations at the Gaza Police, said that the campaign has led to the arrest of “150 witch doctors. However, police have only received 30 complaints against them.
“Most of the witch doctors were engaged in other professions, even though from witchcraft they earned $1,000 per month,” Hamad said.
The Palestinian Police do not know for certain how much the witch doctors earn, said a knowledgeable source in the Interior Ministry.
In the meantime, people continue to risk their lives and health by turning to the witch doctors for treatment, without any measures to protect them from harm or exploitation.
This report was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ – www.arij.net) and coached by Walid Butrawi.