There have been at least 20 murders linked to sorcery accusations in part of Papua New Guinea’s highlands in the past few years, and dozens more violent attacks. The spate of brutal witch-hunts and lynchings has plunged many parts of the state in terror as fearful tribes blame dark forces for their rapidly changing world.
In places like the remote Tsak Valley, attacks have spread “like bushfire”, said Senior Inspector Epenes Nili, even resulting in an attack on the country’s then chief justice.
In one particularly horrifying incident, an elderly woman writhes and pleads hysterically as she is mercilessly beaten, raped and tortured on a hut floor, before her naked body -– bloodied and nearly lifeless — is dragged outside, where a village mob beats and burns her until movement ceases. Almost everyone joins in. No one bothers to obscure their face. No one tries to stop it.
The crowd believe what they are doing is right: the only way to stop a non-human sorcerer who has killed their clansman and devoured his heart. The graphic scene was captured by cell phone video that was obtained by AFP. Dozens of similar videos have been gathered as evidence by the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary showing the brutal reality of modern-day witch-hunts.
Belief in sorcery and witchcraft has long been common across Enga province and Papua New Guinea, but these lynchings are not some ancient rite or custom.
“This is a new phenomenon,” insisted Anton Lutz, a Lutheran missionary who has spent his life in Enga Province and has rescued accused sorcerers, some as young as six.
“We did have ancient beliefs about ghosts and ancient beliefs about stones that could talk and all kinds of interesting things. But this practice of accusing a woman of causing a death and torturing her sadistically and sexually for hours until she dies, that is a new thing. It began about five years ago,” he said. “We had a serious rise last year. It just seemed like there was an attack happening every week, every fortnight.”
According to Lutz, each spasm of violence seemed to begin with a death that locals found difficult to explain. Heart attacks, diabetes and HIV/AIDS are becoming more common, but are still not well understood. The death of an otherwise healthy person was more easily blamed on sorcery than cholesterol. Even a recent drunk driving crash that killed eight people prompted a violent witch-hunt, as people tried to explain why some passengers survived and others did not.
The emergence of “Glasman” — opportunist “diviners” who travel the countryside detecting witches for money — also exponentially increased the rate of killings. So too did tribally ordained retribution.
Like the old woman in the video, 55-year-old mother-of-two Rachel, was accused of “sanguma” — sorcery. Her story shows how quickly suspicion can turn into violence.
Her life changed suddenly in April 2017, when she went with her family to pay her respects at a funeral service for a member of a neighbouring tribe. She was getting ready to leave, looking for her children, when she was grabbed by the dead man’s son. Unknown to Rachel, another woman had been accused of involvement in his death and under torture named Rachel as part of a coven. Rachel pleaded innocence. But she was stripped and, like the murdered woman in the video, violated and burned with hot machetes, spades and rods for a full day by people she knew who were trying to make her “return the heart” of her “victim”.
“The pain was beyond endurance,” she recalled, speaking to AFP as a crowd of locals — some curious, others appearing suspicious — gathered near her hut. “I thought I would die.”
With her mouth gagged, and the pain too much to bear, she managed only a silent prayer: “‘You gave me the job of caring for my children, but if I die, who will care for them?’”
Only a dispute among the mob, estimated at around a thousand people, saved her life.
Across Papua New Guinea the specifics of witch-hunts are bafflingly different. In Enga, the victims of violence are almost exclusively women. But on Bougainville island they are almost always men. In Port Moresby, where violence linked to sorcery accusations has also increased, men and women are targeted.