Azerbaijan: Land of Fire, Land of Tolerance?

mike ormsby child witch kinshasa congo sorcery baku azerbaijan exorcism

I wrote the post below for Radio Free Europe in Azerbaijan, about a controversial local TV show featuring a ‘possessed’ woman; it draws parallels with media policy and ‘possession’ cases in D.R Congo, and explains the context of my novel ‘Child Witch Kinshasa‘.

CW Kin cover cleanThe post appears here under its original title: 

What happens when a journalist meets an exorcist? 

Baku-based British author Mike Ormsby says the devil is in the detail and has a squeaky voice. How does he know? Read on.

The title of my post might sound like a joke, but it’s a topical and serious question, given recent events here in Azerbaijan. I’ll answer in three ways, starting on a personal note.

In 2002, while training journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I met a boy named Kilanda who had been accused of witchcraft and horrifically burned in an ‘exorcism’. You can see the results in this short film. Catholic nuns tended his injuries, but Kilanda was in such agony he could not even speak.

I soon learned that brutal exorcisms happen frequently in DRC. The reasons are complex, but, in brief, kids are targeted as ‘sorcerers’ responsible for everyday misfortunes. Media’s reaction to the abuse seems ambivalent: a case such as Kilanda, that should have been prominently reported, was usually ignored by TV and radio, or buried among the small ads in a local newspaper. Even worse, journalists who did bother to report such cases seemed to prioritize the ‘religious’ and ‘moral’ concerns of adults accusing and injuring kids, as if the power of young ‘sorcerers’ was a fact of life, rather than a figment of overheated imaginations. So, in my journalism seminars around Congo, I urged my local peers to be less blasé and more objective; to report and investigate the abuse of vulnerable kids like Kilanda. Some journalists responded well. Some murmured, “You don’t understand our culture.” Some probably thought I was a witch.

I met a few ‘pastors’ conducting exorcisms for cash, and one invited me to ‘speak with the devil’. I can report that Satan has a squeaky voice. As for our intermediary, the pastor’s earnest sense of vocation was almost convincing but his ragged shirt-cuffs hinted at the real story: in war-ravaged Congo a proper job was about as likely as a visit from an angel, and exorcisms were a lucrative alternative.

I left DRC after five months, with deep concerns about the growing influence of such misguided individuals, some sweet memories of decent people I had met on my travels around that vast country, and an idea for a novel (more of this later).

Here in Baku, recent events provide a second answer to my question: what happens when a journalist meets an exorcist? Or rather, what happens when a journalist hears about a young woman who appears to be possessed?  In this case, the journalist does not turn a blind eye; he senses a story and invites the woman to participate in a TV talk show – Among The People –with several ‘experts’.

The show airs and the young woman sits passively in the audience, flanked by her brother who, at his wits’ end, had originally contacted the journalist. Occasionally the woman glares and snarls across the studio at one of the invited experts, who responds with mystical, hocus-pocus gestures, as if to hypnotize her.  She gasps, writhes, and eventually slumps, as if ‘exorcised’. The producers add dramatic music and the audience squirms or gawps transfixed. The broadcast is melodramatic in tone and I feel as if I’m watching some cranky, late 19th century double-act from American vaudeville. But two things that happen a few days later are even more interesting.

First, Azerbaijan’s media watchdog – the National Television and Radio Company – warns ANS for “causing damage to the physical, mental or moral development of minors, as well as reflecting sensuality and cruelty… which angered the public.

Second, a member of the public contacts the troubled woman and arranges to help her in private. Someone films their encounter and posts it on YouTube, where, it gets over 150,000 hits in a few days. The wobbly footage shows the same stern-faced young woman; she sits, as if in a trance, on a sofa, staring and hissing like a cat at the man who wants to help her. He yells at her, reads aloud from the Koran, slaps her shoulder, and stubs out lighted matches on her forehead and neck. The scene is disturbing and difficult to ignore, compulsive viewing even, like the scary bits of an irresistible movie; the difference being that this is apparently real life – the location looks domestic and a second, older woman appears briefly and hides her face from the camera, as if fearing for her privacy.

Inevitably, these events have created quite a stir in Azerbaijan and, according to a local reporter for the BBC, the young woman is now staying at the man’s home; she says she is ‘unwell’, that the exorcisms ‘help’ her, that she is ‘grateful’ and would allow him to ‘burn me head to toe, if he wishes.

The BBC contacted the public prosecutor, and was told that no charges can be filed against the ‘exorcist’ unless the young woman complains. This seems unlikely, perhaps because she feels better. Let’s hope so. On the other hand, what if she feels worse, and the exorcist takes her at her word? Azerbaijan promotes itself to tourists as the Land of Fire, Land of Tolerance, but does it wish to be known as the land that tolerates a troubled young woman being burned head to toe?

There are countless precedents back in Congo, where youngsters often agree they are ‘possessed’ and play along with those who ‘help’ them, often until it’s too late.

In Congo, however, any adult who accuses or hurts a young person, on grounds of ‘possession’, can face up to three years of penal servitude, which would presumably prove a considerable disincentive to zealous bullies, if more Congolese people knew of that law or were brave enough to invoke it. Is there a law in Azerbaijan to prevent cruelty during ‘exorcisms’, or only one to prevent such cruelty being shown on TV? I’m not qualified to answer, but perhaps someone should, before YouTube is awash with clips of other adults ‘helping’ troubled youngsters.

To conclude, I’ll offer my third answer to the question – what happens when a journalist meets an exorcist? In my case, I wrote a novel. It took me ten years to complete and was published in December 2013. In my story, a Congolese street kid seeks a home and a foreign journalist wants to help; the devil is in the detail. That’s all I’ll say about the plot.

The novel is based on my experiences in Congo and was inspired by Kilanda, the injured boy I mentioned earlier. The first part – Child Witch Kinshasa – was published in December, and the second part  – Child Witch London – comes out in March.

My story does not accuse ‘darkest Africa’, but shows how, when we point, three fingers sometimes point back, and how, in the right/wrong circumstances, such as civil war, we might all lose our moral bearings, even in faraway, leafy London.

Britain has seen horrific torture of ‘demonic’ kids, and even ritual killing, in recent years. My book is not a gruesome tale of murder  – at times it’s a comedy – and I hope it helps to illuminate, in some small way, a big and complex subject, not least because child welfare NGOs warn that the abuse of ‘possessed’ young people is spreading worldwide. That might make for controversial TV in Baku but it’s no joke.

CW Kin cover clean

Hit the Road, Cristian

"She purrs like a cat!"

“My baby is neat, clean and purrs like a cat.”

Spare a thought, this bitter winter, for lorry drivers my friend like Cristian Vlad, who will spend most of it on the road, a thousand miles from home. Cristian has been a trucker for six years. I asked him why…

"She purrs like a cat." Cristian Vlad with his Scania R440, Euro 6

Well, trucks have always fascinated me! I remember as a child, on my tricycle, pretending to be a truck driver, after seeing something about them on TV.

But in mid-winter, do you you ever wish for a different job?

Personally, I hate winter. The batteries die from frost. There is too much ice and snow, the days are short, the nights are long, the cold makes work more stressful, especially when you are cooped up, hour after hour in the cab. Really, I’ve had enough winter adventures to last a lifetime; they’re turning my hair white, literally!

As a driver, which country do you prefer and why?

I like France, because it’s so calm, has excellent infrastructure and plenty of parking. I really enjoy driving across France, it’s a real pleasure to work there. However, it’s also Europe’s most expensive country!

What sort of things do you transport?

Sheets of plate glass. My trailer is custom-designed for this, I can’t carry anything else. The work does not require a lot of physical effort, so that’s convenient. Loading and unloading lasts only a few minutes.

Truck driving often seems an adventurous, even romantic life – the open road, the thrill of new places, the freedom and independence. Does it ever feel that way to you?

Of course, especially on a good day, when the sun rises ahead and the morning goes well, you listen to good music, drink good coffee, you know you have 1,000 km to the destination, and your truck casts an elegant, even feminine silhouette as you overtake the cars. All that brings a smile. But, of course, it can also be the opposite. The point is, not to get stressed out, not to crack during the difficult or stressful times. It’s give and take, good and bad. I’m lucky to visit many places, and to get paid for it.

What truck do you drive?
Scania R440 , Euro6. I got it new and I love it, I care for it like a baby. It’s neat and clean, purrs like a cat, looks great, and has not let me down so far.

You like to cook, after work. How do you manage?
Since becoming a driver, I’ve learned to cook pretty well. I’m lucky because my trailer has a space in the front of the trailer, which I’ve converted into a small kitchen. It’s got all the implements I need and whenever I go home to Romania, I stock up on ingredients, especially Romanian spices.

But how easy is it, after a long day, to get a good night’s rest?
It’s fine, I have a comfortable bed in my trailer. The main thing is to find a quiet and safe parking place, away from potential thieves, otherwise you risk sleepless nights and cannot work during the day.

What’s your usual schedule?

I work nine hours then take by a eleven-hour break. Than I repeat the cycle. But, if I wish, I can work ten hours straight, twice per week, or take a nine-hour break. So, it’s quite flexible. On average, I drive 12,000 miles per month.

Does all this travel affect your personal relationships?

Yes, it’s never easy. I know many truck drivers who are separated or whose families broke up. Our schedules can be hellish.

It is easy to drive a twelve- or eighteen-wheeled monster?

Certainly not! We don’t learn much at driving school, either. Ideally, I think a rookie driver should have a more experienced companion for the first few months, to keep an eye out for danger. There are so many details you must learn, sometimes just in time to avoid trouble. I went out alone at first and, I admit, I made quite a few mistakes, enough to give me a cold sweat several times!

Every day is a winding road...

Every day is a winding road…

So how do you keep your wits sharp – do you try to stay fit?

I do push-ups, abdominal squats, all that. It’s essential as this job gives you very little exercise.

What makes a good driver?

It’s in your blood: a mixture of attention, patience, reflexes, technical skill and a positive mental outlook.

You’ve spent Christmas ‘on the road’, in the past; did Santa Claus find you?

He found me in France a few years ago, I had a nice Christmas Eve with friends. But, as for my birthday, that was quite depressing, because I arrived late in the parking area and couldn’t find any drivers awake. So, I poured a glass and toasted myself: cheers!

(This interview was first published in Playboy, December 2012, by MediaFax Group, Romania)

A Month in the Country

‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’

(Tennyson, 1850 )

DSCF1213 orig hens copy

Radu has a farmer’s tan, a lazy smile and forearms that could throw me over a wall. He stands in his courtyard sharpening a six-inch blade.  “Killed my first calf when I was ten.” He gazes at the mountains of Transylvania. “It was hard, first time. Come, you can help.”

 We lead a beautiful brown calf from Radu’s shed. He wrestles it to the grass, ties its legs and quickly opens its neck, ear to ear, with his blade. The calf makes no sound. The hooves kick, blood flows and the milky eyes stare at an inquisitive cat. 

I ask Radu why he did not first stun the calf. “Because it hurts,” he replies. “How would you like a kick in the head? Plus, a stun gun is expensive. Come, let’s skin it.”

We hoist the dead calf on a rope. Radu makes careful incisions with a Swiss Army knife, cutting and tugging. Soon the warm hide hangs like an onionskin. The cat sits below, lapping blood from the grass, its head speckled red like a Jackson Pollock painting. 


 “You like veal, Mike?” Radu asks. I tell him I have not eaten meat for 33 years. He hands me the Swiss Army knife. “Try not to puncture the hide.”

I cut, tug and wonder what I’m doing here. Radu seems to be wondering the same.

 The answer is, I’m in this mountain village for my summer holidays, helping a British couple move to Transylvania. Radu‘s farm is nearby. His bubbly wife, Elena brings us eggs and cheese. When we need help, they help us; and vice versa. That’s how it is, up here. It’s a nice community, close to nature.

My Brit friend, Anna says, “It’s better to kill a calf in a yard than drive it 20 miles to an abattoir. Imagine the stress?” She’s probably right.

The removal lorry arrives from UK. The solo Romanian driver is 5 foot 3 and looks 17. We try not to stare. He grins, unlocking the back. “Think I’m a kid, eh? I’ve got kids of my own.”

The lorry contains 30m3 of furniture and boxes, well packed by a shipping company, which has also sent a team of quick, strong and courteous young men from Bucharest to help unload. I’m tempted to phone The Daily Mail in London and tell them to stop writing about lazy Romanians invading precious Little England. These guys are amazing. I ask about their work. The team leader tells me they travel a lot. “In Brussels, for some Chinese clients, we lifted an ornamental elephant that weighed 800 kg!”

A neighbour named Vasile comes by with his little dog, to see what’s going on. Vasile has a weather-beaten face, lots of wrinkles but not many fingers.

Vasile 2

“Because I’m a carpenter. My wife works in Germany. And don’t feed my dog. It kills chickens.”

“Because it’s hungry,” Anna suggests.

Vasile shakes his head. “Because it’s a sly little bastard.”

“Would you like a Kiwi fruit?” I offer a bowl of nice ones.

Vasile frowns. “No thanks. I heard those are aphrodisiacs. What if I eat one and get … you know?” he wanders off, followed by a sly little bastard with a waggy tail.

After three days, my friends’ house looks like a home. We work long hours – bed at 6 am, rising at 9 am. We’re exhausted and not happy with the 14-year-old local kid who keeps razzing on his motocross bike. Anna’s husband Tony ask why he revs so loud. “Because I like it,” the kid says.

Radu returns to clean the septic tank. He needs someone to help him, so we draw lots. Guess who loses. I don’t mind, honestly. I’ve never seen a septic tank and this is what holidays are for. It turns out to be a long plastic box, like a circular coffin, in a deep hole. It stops sewage draining into the land. Fascinating. I’ll stand over here, ok?

That evening, we chainsaw logs for winter, under a full moon. Our work is interrupted by howls, but not from wolves. The Motocross Kid has dislocated his shoulder playing Leap Frog. He’ll go to hospital, poor lad, and our long days will be peaceful.

A tiny grandmother dressed in black comes up the road. She tells us she can remember Russian soldiers passing this way in the 1940s. She was so scared she ran all the way home. But they were just local farmers. “And, do you need mushrooms?” she asks. We do. So she promises to bring some freshly picked, tomorrow. “But you mustn’t ask me where from,” she says. So we don’t.

Radu chainsaws a log, dead easy, as if putting a hot knife through butter. “I met a bear once,” he says, tossing aside the stumps. “It spat at me. Stinky spit. I was terrified. I roared at it. I never knew I could shout so loud. It ran away. You want to see a bear’s cave, Mike?”

It’s tempting, but maybe another time. Right now we have work to do, and I’m enjoying it. I pass Radu another log. He offers me a lazy smile. And the chainsaw.

[First published in Playboy by MediaFax, Romania, Sep 2013]

Photo of hens: Abbs Pepper

News from the frontline

In July 1995, some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica. Henry Peirse, a Londoner who reported from the Balkan wars, looks back.

2012-02-28 14.37.35

“I fear there is unfinished business and nationalism might overflow again.”


What took you to Yugoslavia?

I was 22, teaching English, in the right place at the wrong time. There were few journalists. I wanted to become a radio reporter.


When did you sense trouble?

In hindsight, there were many signs. Most people didn’t see them or just laughed. They knew war was inevitable but dark humour kept them going. When the Yugoslav army occupied the hills above Sarajevo, some said, “They’ve come protect us.”


What do you remember of the siege?

Driving fast down Sniper Alley, hoping not to get shot or hit a huge pothole. Also, how the local people, despite the destruction, stayed optimistic.


Did you consider leaving?

No. I had to report! Seven years passed before I thought, “Home to London?”


How did you learn to report?

On the job, taking advice from experienced journalists and my editors. They were helpful, but make the same mistake twice and you were finished!


What would be a typical day?

I would pitch a story, attend the daily UN press briefing, do interviews and seek sources in the field. Maybe a drink or two, if we could find anything, in the evening.


Which story or period sticks in your memory?

May ’95. Everywhere I went, trouble started, whether in the UN protected sectors of Croatia or Sarajevo. It was a pivotal month. I was in the middle of it, mainly by accident. Some events will stay with me forever but not in a good way.


Your worst moment?

The fall of Srebrenica perhaps; we all knew the town had fallen, but needed UN confirmation. I was with the AP bureau chief who broke the story. He was constantly speed-dialling two phones to UN Sarajevo and UN Zagreb. Finally the UN said, “You again? Bloody hell, yes, Srebrenica has fallen.” The AP man sent a news flash he had already written. It went global, in seconds.


Any bright days?

After December 95 we went to the beautiful Croatian coast every weekend. Four years of no tourists had allowed nature to regenerate. It was remarkable.


Who do you remember most?

A fast-talking American working for ABC News. He had two PhDs, a passion for bass guitar and impressed his future wife in Zagreb by drinking wine from her shoe in a gay bar. He was an influential reporter, holding court with the VIP ‘parachute’ correspondents. He died playing onstage a few years ago. I can’t bring myself to delete his phone number.



By the end of the war, you were Head of UN Radio in Sarajevo. What did the UN get wrong in the Balkans? 

A lot, but remember, it could only do what the Security Council allowed and governments around the world decide that. There was little agreement. A UN mission means the world can say, “We’re helping and the UN should do better.’” The UN is a convenient whipping boy.


Why did you launch eFM student radio in Sarajevo?

Because locals had little access to reliable news even after the war. A friend and I started eFM to provide information, work experience and good music for youth. It’s now linked to the university, but revenue is low.


Kosovo and Serbia – any comment?

I worry about the whole region, due to unemployment. A main reason for the war in ’92 was people felt they could make more money apart. I fear there is ‘unfinished business’ and nationalism might overflow again.


What would you say to Serbian General Ratko Mladic?

Are you proud of pushing people back 50 years?


You founded Global Radio News. What is it?

In Sarajevo, it was easy to see war as the ultimate high but I realised that starting a business in London might be similar – I would trust my judgement, take risks. GRN offers broadcasters rapid access to reporters in the field. We support journalists, camera-crews, photographers and fixers. GRN is unique.


You’re a member of London’s Frontline Club, started by journalists during Romania’s revolution. What does Romania mean to you?

Frontline is a forum for discussion; many members covered central Europe as the Iron Curtain parted. I learned about Romania from friends who went. Their stories about its beauty and changes were awe-inspiring.


Do you miss Bosnia?

I miss the excitement, but 3 children keep me on my toes. I still keep a grab bag (with emergency travel essentials). Not sure why and it drives my wife crazy! I often reflect how fragile everything is, how quickly war can start. I don’t know how I would cope if my children had to go through one.


Any tips for an aspiring war reporter, reading this?

Never see yourself as a war reporter. Travelling to a war zone in search of truth is a different objective and often necessary. Had I known what I would see I would have stepped away. I try to remember the positives. The rest is too horrible for words.


(First published in Playboy, July-August 2013, by MediaFax Group, Romania)

Puchi Puchi

Crina are un păr minunat; genul pe care mulţi îl admiră iar unele femei chiar îl invidiază.

puchi hair

“Ce-ţi fac puchi-puchi?”

Crina a râs şi mi-a răspuns, “Ai grijă ce vorbeşti. N-am avut niciodată puchi-puchi.”

to read more, click below. multumesc!

puchi puchi