Helena Kufumana makes a pathetic witch.

Far from exuding wickedness, the 13-year-old schoolgirl is nervous and shy. Her "101 Dalmatians" cartoon T-shirt is grubby and doesn't fit. She swings her bare feet beneath her chair in the hyper way that all kids do. And she cries a lot. Especially about the torture.

Last month Helena was accused by her parents of sickening two of her nieces with evil spells. In retaliation, the bewildered girl says, one of her small hands was burned on a red-hot stove. Her meager possessions, including her clothes, were torched. She was choked. And finally, to destroy her reputation in the community, she was beaten in front of a large crowd. Her mother and elder sisters administered these punishments.

"They tell me that if I try to come home they will kill me," sobbed Helena her tears spattering the floor of the church shelter where she has run for safety. "They say I'm cursed."

Many children seem to be cursed these days in the impoverished hinterlands of Angola--accused of witchcraft by their families, then systematically abused, abandoned and even killed for imagined acts of witchcraft.

The scale and viciousness of the attacks on so-called criancas feiticeiras, or child witches, confounds even hardened human-rights workers in the war-haunted country, and some said the abuse is one of the most disturbing outbreaks of domestic violence seen in Africa in recent years.

In Uige, a sleepy hill town near the Congo border, children's advocates said that a teenager accused of sorcery was set ablaze by a mob that included his own relatives. Another boy was buried alive, beneath the corpse of a man he allegedly hexed, rights workers said. The luckier children are merely banished from their homes. They roam the streets like pariah dogs, surviving hand-to-mouth off food scraps from the markets.

"Many of the thousands of street children across Angola are probably victims of this trend," said Matondo Alexandre, a child-protection expert with the United Nations Children's Fund in Angola.

"This is something new to us," Alexandre added. "In African culture it is usually the older people who are accused of practicing witchcraft. Now we're even seeing cases popping up involving babies."

Why Angolans are turning with such horrific ferocity against their young, especially at this relatively benign point in their wounded history, is a question few experts can answer with certainty.

Possible causes of abuse

Some blamed the recent proliferation of fire-and-brimstone evangelical churches in Angola, whose apocalyptic vision of the universe--and profit from exorcisms--meshes nicely with an epidemic of witchcraft.

Others cited the spread of particularly noxious beliefs in magic from neighboring Congo, where the phenomenon of child sorcerers also is taking root in an atmosphere of economic and political lawlessness.

But most experts agreed that the true answers lie buried in the social wreckage of Angola's immensely degrading civil war, a 27-year fratricide that ended barely two years ago and has left Angola with a staggering case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Witchcraft fears have broken out in many societies during times of distress," said Francisco de Mata Mourisca, the Roman Catholic bishop of Uige, whose sprawling hilltop compound has lately become a magnet for shy, hungry and sometimes battered children who come seeking refuge from witch hunts.

"But you have to ask yourself, why our children?" de Mata Mourisca said. "The answer in Angola is simple. Because war has brutalized our families in the same way it destroyed our homes and streets."

That certainly rings true in Uige, an old coffee-growing town set amid the hauntingly beautiful green hills of the Angolan plateau, where a spike in fatal child-abuse cases is alarming social workers.

According to rights advocates in town, children as young as 5 have been hanged, stoned to death, raped, burned and drowned in rivers after being accused of sorcery.

The common themes in all their stories--besides heartbreak--are parental bonds that have snapped under the strain of rebel assaults, government counterattacks, mindless violence, disease, mass starvation, scattered families, abandoned marriages and the press-ganging of children into various armed factions.