Photos by Vlad Sokhin of cargo cultists on the remote island of Tanna. They seem more into building guns out of wood and marching around in old US army outfits than the cargo cultists in Papua New Guinea, who've been accused of cannibalizing people.
A couple of weeks ago, we ran an article about the "cargo cults" that live on the Pacific Island of Tanna. The cargo cults are semi-religious tribal groups whose members believe that if they perform rituals in honor of their idols—namely imaginary American WWII soldier John Frum and real-life racist monarch Prince Philip—a bounty of "cargo" (guns and stuff) will rain down on them from the sky. Oh yeah, they also believe that when this happens, everyone else in the world will die, leaving them behind as its sole proprietors.
And to be honest, all that sounded relatively harmless, if a little insane. But away from the relatively cuddly cargo cults of Tanna, events took a sinister turn in Papua New Guinea recently, where rumors began to circulate that members of a similar cult had murdered and eaten seven people.
I was pretty shocked to learn that a nonsensical belief in a made up deity could lead people to perform acts of violence, so I decided to call Inspector Jacob Bando of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. He was part of the operation to arrest the cultists and I thought he'd be able to help me find out what’s going on.
VICE: Hi Jacob, can you explain what the cultists have been up to?
Jacob Bando: They have this belief that when they kill people, it acts as a kind of sacrificial offering that helps them gain power. So what they did was, they killed those people and set them on fire and cooked them. And they think they gain power from the oil from the body.
I see. And I’ve read that they ate the victims, too. Why would they do that?
It's one of their many beliefs: that they will gain power by eating people. That by eating the victim's heart and kidneys, they will become invisible. Also, they believe that if they carry out these rituals, goods will fall out of the sky. It’s because during the Second World War, things were dropped from the sky here to resupply the troops, but sometimes the primitive people got them. And so, they think if they do these things, presents will drop from the sky [laughs].
So you have arrested them now. Can you describe the operation?
The victims' relatives, from the villages Tangu and Biam, were upset about the murder. They reported it to the police with the names of the people involved. We went in the middle of the night and surrounded the village. We used the language that the locals speak and woke the villagers up and arrested the cultists.
These Tanna cargo cultists worship Prince Philip as a deity. Which is kinda the acceptable face of cargo cultism, or at least more acceptable than eating other people, as police believe has been happening recently in Papua New Guinea.
Was there any resistance to the arrests?
Yes. They had primitive weapons, especially bows and arrows, which are now being held at the police station. Some of them tried to resist but they couldn’t match our modern weapons.
So did any of your officers end up with an arrow in the face?
No, no one was injured. But the people who were arrested were beaten up, you know, to put some sense into their brains [laughs].
Sorry, what? You beat them up?
Yeah, you know, that’s our normal way of operating here out in the sticks [turns out he's not lying].
OK, so what will happen to them now?
They’ll be put on trial. It will probably go to the national court, it’s a very serious offense. We definitely have enough evidence. Bodies have been found.
How many people have you arrested?
About 30 people.
Out of how many people in the locality?
About 42,000 people live in the district. The cults are very small.
Have you arrested the entire cult or just the murderers? Are there any cultists left around?
It’s a very secretive group. It’s very hard to identify them. It will take more time to investigate it and get to the bottom of it. The people who are still there will eventually be arrested. We have to convince other people that the cult is bad and that they should come forward with information.
I hear there’s an election going on there at the moment. Did the killings affect that at all?
They delayed it slightly. They were stopping people from going to cast their votes and telling them not to worry because things will fall from the sky.
I see. Has this kind of thing happened before?
Similar incidents have occurred in the past. For example, in 2009, a five-year-old girl was kidnapped from her home at a care center in Bogia District. Her attackers cooked her body and made a sacrificial offering to their God. Another incident occurred in 2010, in the same District where three young males were killed in the same way.
Yeeesh. Thanks Jacob!
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonchilds13