KINSHASA (Reuters) - When Pascal's little brother got sick, his family accused him of witchcraft and took him to a pastor who forced him to drink pigeon's blood and oil.
Denied food and beaten for three days, the ten-year-old managed to escape, joining some 250,000 other street children in Congo for three years until he was scooped up by a children's centre in Kinshasa's tough east end.
"(The pastor) wouldn't let me eat or drink any water -- he said it would increase the power of the witch," Pascal, not his real name, said in the centre where nearly 100 other children, most accused of witchcraft, have also sought shelter.
UNICEF, the United Nations' children's charity, says accusing children of sorcery is a fairly new and growing trend in Africa, despite long-held traditional and mystic beliefs on the continent.
"The phenomenon of 'child witches'... occurs in urban areas, where it has grown constantly in the last thirty years," according to a UNICEF study published this month.
Where previously elderly women were accused, today the focus more often falls on young children, often some of the most vulnerable, such as orphans, disabled or poor.
The U.N. report says many children ousted from their homes for being witches are blamed for family misfortunes ranging from sickness and poverty to envious stepmothers. Some religious sects make money exorcising their spirits.
"It's a problem that's growing every day," says Father Justin Onganga, a Catholic priest who manages another centre.
"This has nothing to do with witchcraft but it has everything to do with urban poverty," Onganga said.
Congo's 1998-2003 conflict earned the label of Africa's world war after it sucked in six neighbouring armies and killed 5.4 million people, mostly from malnutrition and disease.
Nearly 80 percent of the population still live on less than $2 a day. The conflict simmers, mostly in the east, but Onganga said the "child witch" phenomenon was a symptom of a capital under extreme strain.
"It's just down to economic reasons -- when they can't look after their home they find a reason to get rid of a child."
Olivier, 12, was thrown out of home by his uncle's wife, who accused him of wanting to kill his younger brother.
"They called a fetishist and he said whoever's face showed up in the mirror was responsible. He held the mirror in front of me and my face appeared. My family threw me out," he said.
A throbbing city of 8 to 12 million, Kinshasa is toughest by night. Young girls compete to have sex with men for $1 a go, hoping to find at least five in a night.
One, on the streets for ten years, says she lost her tooth when a man who was raping her punched her to stop her from screaming and struggling. At night in the Matete neighbourhood, a baby boy lay silently in the dirt as a dog ran over his body.
British charity War Child found in a study this year that 41 percent of street girls had been accused of witchcraft. Some girls leave their children drugged in alleyways to keep them quiet while they go to work, the organisation said.
Although short on numbers, the U.N. study cited cases across the continent, from Botswana and South Africa, to Ghana in the West and Tanzania in the East.
Study author Aleksandra Cimpric found 70 percent of people imprisoned in Central African Republic's capital are there due to witchcraft accusations, and said some children confess to flying on peanut shells, mango tree bark and avocado skins.
"Even though we Africans believe that witchcraft exists, these are all false cases," said Onganga. Some children had been taken back into their homes once they have become successful or wealthier than their parents.
The U.N. has called for the decriminalisation of witchcraft in countries where it is a crime -- such as Benin, Mali and Uganda -- and also blames dysfunctional families and poverty.
"I don't want to go back to my family. But I hope one day to have a house and wife," said Pascal, who still has no home.
Editing by David Lewis