Originally appeared in The New York Times.
BANGUI, Central African Republic — This nation is flirting with genocide. Two barely organized groups — one Christian, one Muslim — have been fighting for control in the last year, and in some areas have tried to hunt each other to extinction. C.A.R. is splitting in two, with Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Much of the capital is already empty of Muslims.
And yet casting the conflict in religious terms is a poor way to understand it. The war was caused not by sectarian differences, but by political and economic grievances, the products of systematic neglect of Muslim areas by the government once run by François Bozizé, a general backed by Chad and France. Religious divisions mapped onto, and exacerbated, senses of longstanding economic and political injustice.
And if the violence has reached fearsome levels in the last few months, it is partly because a pervasive belief in sorcery among Central Africans has mapped onto and exacerbated Christian-Muslim divisions.
“Witchcraft is real,” the country’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, assured me during an interview at her home in Bangui in late March.
Ms. Samba-Panza, a lawyer, said she knew as much because sorcery “is against the law, and the courts try people for it.” Before the war, the Central African legal system was clogged with cases against the “practice of charlatanism and sorcery.” Lawyers told me P.C.S. is the country’s most commonly prosecuted crime. Some 60 percent of female prisoners were sent to jail for witchcraft.
Central Africans invoke sorcery by others to explain puzzling or adverse events — a roof’s collapse, a long-term illness, a helicopter crash. In times of war, witchcraft is a force to be marshaled for self-protection or greater strength in battle.
In western C.A.R., where some Christian militias originated, money-making can generate profound suspicion. In some cases the rich are thought to enslave the souls of others, and profit from their work while they sleep. (The victims report feeling inexplicably tired.) Muslims, long the country’s commercial backbone, have been accused of occult crimes, including trafficking in human body parts.
Now sorcery shapes the fighting ethic of the Christian militias, known as the “anti-balaka.” The name is a pun: In the national language Sango, balaka means machete, and in French, balles-AK refers to bullets from AK-47’s. Anti-balaka fighters initiate one another in rituals to immunize themselves against the effects of both weapons.
The week before I met President Samba-Panza, on the streets of Bangui I saw armed anti-balaka swearing by their amulets — typically leather or cloth pouches filled with herbs or scraps of paper and strung around the neck. These tokens, called gris-gris throughout francophone Africa, are believed to ward off harm in battle.
But faith in witchcraft need not breed violence. The sociologist Roland Marchal explained that the anti-balaka from Bossangoa, in northwestern C.A.R., believe amulets lose their magic if their wearer misbehaves by, say, looting or having illicit sex. To a young man in battle, however, believing you are invulnerable encourages belligerence.
This is all the more true because the power of magic can neither be proved nor disproved. Even when the occult seems to have failed you, you can always invoke more potent forces on the enemy’s side — which is only more reason for believing.
In Bangui, I met a fighter from Bossangoa named Fei-Ngmona Romaric. He was the picture of courtesy, even after seven months of hard combat. He said his gris-gris had protected him along the way. “How do you know it really works?” I asked. “If it didn’t work,” he scoffed, “I wouldn’t be wearing it.”
Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The New Republic and a visiting professor at Deep Springs College in California.