PNG's rise as world cricket heroes
Peter O'Neill flees as arrest looms

We’re women, not witches

Witch burning
Dramatic photograph captures the horrific scene of a woman being tortured in front of a village crowd

| Ms Magazine | Extract

WASHINGTON DC - Paul Petrus speaks softly about the part he played in the rescue of an accused witch.

Anna (not her real name), a young woman in her mid-twenties, was being tortured by villagers outside Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands Province.

After a 2015 outbreak of tribal violence in neighbouring Enga, Anna had fled approximately 130 km to escape the conflict.

But some members of the opposing tribe recognised Anna at the Mount Hagen marketplace.

 “[They] kidnapped her … took her to an isolated place and raped her,” says Petrus, who is on a team of more than 100 human rights defenders from Mount Hagen that rescues people accused of witchcraft.

The attack took place on a Friday night. Anna managed to escape her attackers around 3am. In shock, with her clothing shredded, she staggered through the dark and stumbled into a village.

Ordinarily everyone would have been asleep, but some villagers had just interred a family member in the community cemetery and were keeping vigil over the burial site, watching for malignant spirits that might snatch the body away, Petrus says.

To the family holding vigil, Anna’s brutalised form, emerging like an apparition out of the dark, was precisely what their imaginations feared. Some of the villagers grabbed her.

They “started making a big fire and started burning her private parts by heating up machetes,” Petrus says. At 4am, he received an urgent phone call for help from the village pastor.

Petrus ran to the police station and arrived at the scene shortly after 6:30am in a cruiser driven by a woman officer. Together, they bundled the victim, now reeking of burned flesh, into the car and drove her to Mount Hagen General Hospital.

Part of Petrus’ rescue work involves training the public in how to react when an individual is in imminent danger from witch hunters; the pastor was one of those trained by Petrus. More people should take part, Petrus says, because the “issues of sorcery [are] starting to escalate.”

Animism and ancestor worship are part of the belief system of many Papua New Guineans, especially those in remote inland areas.

Sanguma is the word used to describe witchcraft—possession of an individual by a spirit, which is reputed to take the form of an animal such as a frog.

The terms sorcery and witchcraft are used interchangeably, although the former usually refers to potions and spells rather than a personal power that can be used for good or ill.

Only in the past few generations have many Papua New Guineans been exposed to belief systems other than their own, since first contact with tribes in the interior occurred as late as the 1930s.

The country’s diversity is remarkable: There are upward of 850 languages, each dialect representing a unique cultural group in this small, developing nation of 8.6 million people.

Moreover, the isolation of many tribal communities, living in a subsistence economy in dense mountain rainforests, has further insulated people from outside influence. As a result, the government has only just recently begun to deal with the problem of witch burnings.

In 2013, 20-year-old Kepari Leniata was accused of witchcraft following the death of a neighbour’s son from ill health. She was burned alive on a pyre built of rubber tires in Mount Hagen, in front of a crowd of people.

Her death triggered the repeal of the Sorcery Act, which made murder legal if the victim practiced sorcery. Later a Sorcery National Action Plan was unveiled, a group of church leaders and human rights advocates who promote a holistic approach to sanguma accusations, including helping victims, stopping accusations and using the law to punish those who perpetrate violence.

A decade or so ago, sanguma had been isolated to a few provinces like Chimbu but then came dramatic societal shifts: dislocation and family breakdown due to unbridled natural resource extraction.

This plus increased HIV/AIDS, a rise in alcohol and drug abuse and afflictions like diabetes and heart disease—frayed the social fabric.

Consequently, sanguma beliefs spread.

A study, ‘Ten Preliminary Findings Concerning Sorcery Accusation-Related Violence in Papua New Guinea’, released this year by the Australia National University indicated that since 2016 there have been 357 incidents of sorcery accusations in Enga and Bougainville as well as some in the capital, Port Moresby. Of these 357 incidents, 117 led to violence against 185 victims.

Human Rights Watch corroborates the reports of violence, stating in 2016 that “PNG is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with the majority of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime.” In 2018, the organisation further reported that sorcery accusation-related violence was “unabated, with women and girls the primary targets.”

Yet another challenge to stopping anti-sanguma superstition is the country’s low literacy rate—at 63% in 2015.


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Robert Forster

That is one of the worst pictures I have seen. If I had walked into that village I would not have been able to contain my anger or, it must be said, my fear.

Public sadism that has descended to those depths has to be rooted out. Public well being and community stability depend on it.

Western development has not been free of such traumas.

The witch finders who thrived in the extreme puritan culture of 17th century England were notorious for identifying so-called witches, stripping them naked (an essential it seems to witch finding in PNG too) humiliating them, then burning some alive.

However an acknowledgment that current practice in some sections of PNG's highlands can find an historic mirror in established countries that have long since moved on does nothing to dilute the urgency with which this stain on PNG's national and international reputation, and its causes, must be immediately removed.

My sense is this would require a well thought out and coordinated effort conducted against an agreed long term plan that would require huge financial investment and resource commitment on village, and villager, welfare over decades - certainly not just months or even years.

An entire re-focusing of national focus and aspiration perhaps.

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