'They just slaughter them': how sorcery violence spreads fear across Papua New Guinea

Five alleged sorcery-related deaths – including the hanging of a 13-year-old boy - in a single week in one Papua New Guinea province, has revived a nationwide angst over the persistent crime of alleged witchcraft killings.

The victim of an alleged sorcery accusation attack shows the wounds on his back. Sorcery-related violence, including murders, are common across PNG.
The victim of an alleged sorcery attack shows the wounds on his back. Sorcery-related violence, including murders, are common across PNG. Photograph: Kristina Steiner/The Guardian

In the highland villages and the lowland towns of Papua New Guinea, it is the crime that everybody knows about, that many see, but that few can, or do, anything to stop.

Those who survive it are left disfigured: limbs shattered and missing, faces scarred and swollen, souls forever damaged.

Those are the lucky ones, the survivors, the few who live. Most do not.

Five alleged sorcery-related deaths – including the hanging of a 13-year-old boy - in a single week in one Papua New Guinea province, has revived a nationwide angst over the persistent crime of alleged witchcraft killings.

In PNG’s remote East Sepik region, in the north of New Guinea island, a woman and a teenaged school student were allegedly murdered in the village of Gavien. A 13-year-old boy from the same village was allegedly kidnapped before his body was found hanged.

Three people have been charged with wilful murder over those deaths that police say are believed to be related to accusations of sorcery. Those charged have not yet entered a plea in court.

The regional police commander, Superintendent Albert Beli, said the alleged murders were believed to be related to a death earlier this year in the neighbouring village of Angoram, about 15km away.

“A man died from an illness [in February in Angoram],” Beli told the National newspaper. “After that people started accusing and killing each other.”

Unrelated, a man and his son were killed at Suanum outside the provincial capital Wewak the same week. Police have alleged their deaths were also linked to sorcery allegations.

Sorcery deaths are murders where the victims are accused of practicing some sort of witchcraft, often on a neighbouring family or village, resulting in death, illness or bad luck.

In 2013, Papua New Guinea repealed its controversial Sorcery Act, passing a new law that mandated that all killings related to sorcery accusations would be treated as murder.

However, since the new law was passed, no perpetrator of an alleged sorcery-related killing has ever been convicted of murder.

‘Illegal violence against vulnerable people’

Sorcery violence – known as Sorcery Accusation Related Violence, or SARV – is intractably persistent in PNG, and little is done to address the issue, Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz, based in Enga, told the Guardian.

“Papua New Guineans’ ideas about sanguma [black magic or witchcraft] and sorcery are regionally diverse, logically contradictory, change over time, and spread to new places and people where they mix with other pre-existing beliefs.”

“And they are used to justify their illegal violence against vulnerable people,” he said.

The killings are often unspeakably violent. Women, and most victims are women, are gang-raped, beaten and burned. They are butchered with knives.

In July last year, reports emerged from the highlands village of Karida of the slaughter of 10 women, six children and two unborn babies, hacked to death with machetes. Their murders followed the killing of three women and four men in a neighbouring village the day before. The dual atrocities sent hundreds of people fleeing into the surrounding bushland.

The bodies of victims of sorcery murders in Karida, in PNG’s highlands, in 2019. 10 women, six children and two unborn babies were killed.
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The bodies of victims of sorcery murders in Karida, in PNG’s highlands, in 2019. Ten women, six children and two unborn babies were killed. Photograph: Pills Kolo/AP

While the brutality shocked Papua New Guinea, and generated insistence from the country’s political class that practice would be stamped out, mass-scale attacks – particularly on women accused of sorcery – persist.

Last month, in the Southern Highlands’ Pimaga district, 17 women were forcibly rounded up and allegedly tortured after a young boy was bitten by a dog and died. The women were found by police and released back into the community.

But the director of operations for the PNG Tribal Foundation, Ruth Kissam, said there was a real risk the women would be attacked again.

“The community is protecting their own and will protect their own.”

‘Sorcery violence stems from poor education’

Often associated with PNG’s remote highlands, sorcery killings are allegedly occurring in lowland provinces too.

Milne Bay Police provincial commander, Peter Barkie, told the Guardian SARV occurred regularly, was widely known about, but rarely went unreported.

“The belief here about sorcery is so intense that they kill anyone they suspect is practicing it, but the practice here is different from that in Southern Highlands where women are beaten and tortured before being burnt alive.”

He said men, women and even children were accused. “They just slaughter them, no torture, no burning.

“But what is frightening about the practice here is that the first-born child of the person accused is also killed because they believe it is passed from the parent to the first-born child.”

Barkie cited a recent case earlier this year in Milne Bay, where a woman who had seen her father murdered 10 years ago after he was accused of practicing sorcery, was hacked to death with machetes. It is widely believed that the reason she was killed was that she was the eldest child of the accused sorcerer.

Barkie said there were few official police reports made by victims or their families, “perhaps because they are afraid of the perpetrators turning on them and their families”.

“But it is happening.”

'So many women were killed': fighting alleged sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea – video

The governor of Oro province, Gari Juffa, told the Guardian that PNG’s persistent sorcery-related violence was a “red-flag” the country was regressing, rather than progressing. He said the violence targeted those already most vulnerable.

“Sorcery related violence stems from poor education, lack of awareness, limited opportunities coupled with deteriorating capacity for law and order and a lack of political will.”

Police minister Bryan Kramer said SARV had “no place in our society” and said police were working to rescue those accused of sorcery and intervene in violence. In June in Tulum village in the Southern Highlands, three women were allegedly tortured by their relatives for sorcery. They were freed by police and the military, acting on a tip-off.

“If not for the intervention of the police and soldiers, the women would have been killed,” Kramer said.

Kramer said the government’s 2015 SARV national action plan was designed to counter the problem through counselling, legal protection and prosecution, improved children protection mechanisms, advocacy and education.