Papua New Guinea Is Still Burning "Sorcerers" at the Stake

By Ronan O'Kelly


Witch hunters in Papua New Guinea. Image via

For most of us in the West, terms like sorcery and witchcraft tend to conjure images of delusional, damaged retirees gathering old berries for moonlit séances. However, some of the people who live in the more remote regions of Papua New Guinea possess a more extreme belief in the power of the occult. In fact, they take it seriously enough that, in the past couple of weeks, some of them have formed an armed mob and attacked two women accused of sorcery in PNG’s western island of Bougainville.

Women's rights advocate and former schoolteacher Helen Rumbali, her sister Nikono, and Nikono's two teenage daughters were held captive and tortured with knives and axes for three days before the mob beheaded Helen and seriously injured Nikono. Finally, after another fortnight of tense hostage negotiations with members of the local community, police managed to secure the release of the remaining three captives on Monday. Over the past few years, incidents like these have become common in Papua New Guinea. Late last month, six women accused of sorcery were tortured with hot irons as part of an Easter “sacrifice” in a village in the Southern Highlands. Yet despite the growing problem, sorcery-related violence often goes unreported.

“It’s something that has been going on for a long time," Kate Schuetze, Pacific researcher for Amnesty International, told me. "But there’s a huge stigma in terms of reporting sorcery-related violence. Those who've been accused of sorcery often have to flee the areas that they’re from, which means they might not want to report to the police or the media what’s been happening.”

Although sorcery-related killings are by no means a new phenomenon in PNG, the issue has gained significant attention recently, after images of a 20-year-old woman burned to death over sorcery claims were picked up by the international media in February. Since then, fresh reports of sorcery-related violence have been condemned by the international community.

Papua New Guinea’s police force is underpaid, under-resourced, and notoriously corrupt. In many of these recent instances, police have been present during the killings but claimed they were outnumbered by an aggressive mob and were unable to prevent the violence or deaths. Schuetze explained that, while a lack of adequate staff and resources does legitimately remain a common problem among local authorities, it’s hardly a valid excuse.


The Papua New Guinean police force.

“The police who are sent to intervene often come from the same cultural belief system as that community, so sometimes police from these communities believe that they’re justified in getting rid of someone that they believe is a sorcerer,” she said.

Often sorcery killings are sparked by a mysterious or unexplainable tragedy in remote rural communities. If a local dies or grows severely ill, community members begin to speculate about the causes and, in the absence of any other more obvious reason, sorcery is often settled upon as an explanation. Those accused tend to be the more marginalized members of society, and while men are occasionally victimized, women are particularly vulnerable to attacks, comprising roughly six out of every seven cases reported. To make matters worse, once they’ve been accused, very little is done to protect these so-called sorcerers.

“One of the things that we heard from women on the ground in PNG is that if you’re accused of sorcery, they can do anything to you and no one will stop them—that goes for the police as well,” she said.

The number of sorcery-related murders has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks in part to the increased mobility of the country’s disparate populations. “One of the things we heard while we were in Papua New Guinea is that sometimes these beliefs spread because people move around the country a lot more. They carry their belief system from their villages to new communities,” Schuetze said. Although the problem has become widespread in many regions throughout the country, accurate case figures are difficult to ascertain because of the stigma attached to reporting these crimes. However, a priest Schuetze spoke to, working in the New Guinea highlands, suspected that around 150 people a year were killed by sorcery-related violence in his province alone.


A Papua New Guinean witch hunter holding an alleged witch's skull. Image via

Though deeply embedded cultural beliefs are at the heart of this epidemic, it's arguable that certain systemic and legal issues must also be held accountable. Among the most significant contributing factors is the Sorcery Act, which officially outlaws the use of black magic in the country. In doing so, the act legitimizes specific cases of violence by treating sorcery as a legally recognized phenomenon. In response to mounting international pressure and a rising death toll, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, finally called for the repeal of the Sorcery Act earlier this month. It’s a significant step toward eradicating the problem, but critics say the move alone won't stem the violence.

Still, while the problems continue to spiral, there are also encouraging signs that the tide may be turning. Last week saw a landmark 30-year sentence handed down for a brutal murder in the northern highlands—as a result of the first sorcery-related killing in the area to reach a national court, according to the local police commissioner. While breakthroughs like these are welcome steps in the right direction, for now at least, a long-term solution seems out of reach.

Follow Ronan on Twitter: @RonanOKelly

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