In the past decade in Papua New Guinea, hundreds of men, women and children have been accused of witchcraft or sorcery, and publicly tortured and murdered by vigilante mobs. Endemic fears of black magic haunt Pacific Island communities, fueling the violence.
“It is a public mob-mentality packed action. It is not just killing, but torturing, to try to get a confession out of them,” says Kate Scheutze, Amnesty International’s Pacific researcher.
In April 2014, six people – including two children – were murdered in Sasiko village in the Madang province on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea by marauding men from a neighboring village. Nearly one year earlier, a 20-year-old mother in Mount Hagen, in the Western Highlands, was burned to death after being accused of using sorcery against a 6-year-old boy who had died. These are just two examples of a widespread practice that targets men, women and children as a means to explain hardship and accidents, according to anthropologists. Papua New Guinea’s Constitutional and Law Reform Commission estimates that there are 150 sorcery-related deaths annually.
“The cultural belief system about illness, death and misfortune predisposes people to look for scapegoats for who is responsible [for causing it],” explains Richard Eves, an anthropologist with the Australian National University (ANU), and researcher in a 2013 study investigating the factors behind sorcery and witchcraft-related violence.
According to Eves, the witch hunts start at the funeral or bedside of a deceased or ill relative, when people begin to speculate about the cause. With limited medical or scientific understandings of health and illness, communities find few alternative explanations to counter their deeply embedded fear of supernatural evils. While recent legal reforms include the death penalty for sorcery-related killings, there is limited police presence where the majority of the 7.32 million population lives, and murders are often committed with impunity.
In the Womb
Suspicions of witchcraft are raised either by community members, based on grudges the accused had against the deceased or sightings of them together before the death, or by “glass men” – paid witch hunters who claim to identify black magic practitioners through visions and dreams.
Yet the accused in a community tend to be either defenseless, such as a widow without sons, or outsiders, such as women from other villages who have married into the tribe and are without relatives nearby.
“If you are a victim…the community surrounds you and you are in the middle and you are helpless, [then] they grab and torture you,” says Mary Kini, a member of the Highland Women Human Rights Defenders, a network of human rights activists working in seven provinces in the highlands to help accused escape.
“It is an attack completely without evidence, people are just acting on a hunch,” adds Scheutze.
Some reports suggest that women are six times more likely to be accused of witchcraft, according to Amnesty International.
“It is an excuse to perpetuate violence against women,” says Scheutze. “If there is an accusation of sorcery, people are less likely to challenge it than if a woman is abused for other reasons,” she added.
Anthropologists attribute the practice to traditional beliefs, which hold that evil spirits reside in the womb, making females biologically predisposed to witchcraft, which is then passed on genetically to their children. (While it is possible for spirits to use a man’s testicles as a host, this is believed less likely.)
“Because it is hereditary, children as young as four have been accused of witchcraft,” said Eves.
While witch hunts have existed in Melanesian countries for centuries, researchers say the sadistic nature of the violence – which now often includes public sexual mutilation using hot iron rods inserted into the body – is a recent phenomenon.
“It is becoming more brutal. They used to dispatch people quickly, pushing them off a cliff or into a river. But now kangaroo courts torture people in public,” said Fr. Philip Gibbs, a priest who has worked Mount Hagen, the Western Highlands, for more than four decades.
In May 2013, the government repealed its 1971 Sorcery Act, which had been heavily criticized by human rights advocates as validating the existence of black magic, thereby legitimizing witch hunts.
“Sorcerers have extraordinary powers that can be used sometimes for good purposes but more often for bad ones…many evil things can be done and many people are frightened or do things that otherwise they might not do,” stated the preamble of the Act.
By repealing the Act, killing alleged sorcerers and witches is now considered murder, making people liable for the death penalty, which was re-introduced in March 2013.
The isolation of communities and the sparse reach of police forces guarantees near impunity, according to Kini.
“In remote areas they can kill and do whatever they like because there is no police response to them,” she says.
Communities with strong fears of black magic also feel betrayed by the shift in laws.
“There is a widespread view that the government is not doing enough to protect [communities] from witches and sorcerers. [In] revoking the sorcery act, the government is seen as supporting witches and sorcerers,” explained Eves.
Torture, which perpetrators do not believe hurts witches, is used to force the accused to confess where they put the heart of the person harmed by the black magic, so that it can be put back and they will be healed.
“There is a sense of urgency to the torture, they don’t want their friend [or relative] to die, they are trying to torture the truth out [of the alleged witch] so they can save a person’s life,” says Gibbs.
Medical Care and Knowledge
Part of the problem lies in the lack of adequate healthcare and schooling, according to researchers.
The average life expectancy for men is 60 years old, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), roughly twenty years lower than most developed countries.
The leading causes of deaths are preventable illnesses including malaria, pneumonia and tuberculosis, based on research done by the Pacific Drug and Alcohol Research Network, a multi-stakeholder health advocacy network for the Pacific Islands.
High rates of death and disease are compounded by a sparse understanding of scientific knowledge (only eight percent of children attend secondary school, according to the UN Children’s Fund).
“The health system needs to be improved, because if people get sick and die less, there will be less reasons to accuse others,” says Gibbs, adding that even just putting a medical explanation on the table during funerals has, in some cases, been enough to stymie suspicion of witchcraft and sorcery.
“There is a view that nobody dies a natural death unless it is old age,” explains Eves.
Despite the challenges, grassroots initiatives to save the accused are starting to gain momentum.
The Highlands Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD), with the support of AusAid and Oxfam, has rescued and resettled roughly 400 families from torture and execution since 2012, according to Kini.
Focal points in villages throughout the Highlands alert the defenders’ network when a threat of violence arises. The defenders then team up with police in an attempt to rescue the victims.
“Sometimes the [perpetrators] come after us too. But no one else will support the victim, they are all for [killing them]. Someone has to stop it,” said Kini.