A number of women in Papua New Guinea have been forced to flee their homes amid accusations they practice witchcraft, becoming the latest victims of a growing phenomenon of sorcery-related violence, officials have said.
Ruth Kissam, a youth coordinator with the Western Highlands Provincial Government told Radio Australia that four women in Enga province in Papua New Guinea's northern highlands "have fled their villages," and said "they are refugees in their own land."
Earlier reports said the four women, along with 13 children, were in danger of being killed. The women had purportedly been fingered by a "witch-hunter" who sought to blame them for a measles outbreak that had killed several locals.
Belief in sorcery is widespread in the Melanesian country, but observers say attacks have taken a turn for the worse as bands of youths -— often with few means for advancement or education — take it upon themselves to rid their communities of the accused.
"It's picking up, and the worst thing is new beliefs are popping up as it spreads along," said Kissam. "The people that are carrying it out are mostly young men who do not have much to do."
International attention was drawn to the lynching of accused witches in the country in 2013 when a 20-year-old woman named Kepari Leniata was stripped naked and burned alive in Mount Hagen, the capital of Western Highlands Province and the third largest city in Papua New Guinea. Shortly after, Helen Rumbali, a former teacher accused of sorcery, was beheaded in public.
Leniata, like most victims, was a woman accused of bringing about the death of someone through witchcraft, in her case that of a six-year-old boy who had passed away shortly before the attack. Widely published images showed a crowd of onlookers gawking as Leniata's body smoldering atop a bed of flaming garbage and tires.
The UN has cited hundreds of sorcery-related incidents of violence in the past several years. Human rights officials say it's hard to assess the full scope of the crimes because police rarely, if ever, investigate them.
The plight of the four women believed to have fled was first brought to attention by Anton Lutz, a Lutheran missionary based in the Papua New Guinean highlands. "We are still trying to notify the authorities and we're waiting for calls back from the police right now," he told Radio Australia.
Lutz said he had tracked the killing of at least 25 women accused of witchcraft in the last decade. In remote areas such as the one the four women fled from, the government is nonexistent and police days away.
Lutz said that that none of those killings had been addressed by law enforcement.
Dan Jorgensen, a professor of anthropology at the University of Western Ontario who tracks such incidents, says the numbers of murders could run between 50-150 per year, amounting to possible 1,000 killings in the past decade alone in a country with fewer residents than New York City.
Jorgensen's fieldwork in another province, West Sepik, paints a similar picture to the one Kissam described.
"The perpetrators are almost never the accusers — they are often male, they tend to be young and are often stoned or drunk," Jorgensen told VICE News. "In some places they do this with the tacit approval of the community, but it is often the case that they are not so much vigilantes as renegades."
In a 2014 report published by the Australian Anthropological Society, Jorgensen claimed that perceptions of the lynching of suspected witches as being a longstanding practice in Papua New Guinea is not backed by historical records. "When we look at ethnographic accounts from these areas more closely, we find little support for the idea that contemporary witch-killing is simply a continuation of traditional practices," he wrote.
Greatly reduced during the evangelization of the country, the lynchings have re-emerged in the past several decades. In 2013, in response to growing attacks, the government in Port Moresby finally repealed the 1971 Sorcery Act, which had considered allegations of sorcery as a partial defense in murder cases. The same year, they legalized the death penalty.
Observers point to the current mining boom in Papua New Guinea, which has caused great inequality and envy among certain communities. In several documented cases, including the beheading of Rumbali, victims have been financially better off than those who accused and killed them.
Jorgensens said that conspiracy theories, which he posits have spread in part through interpretations of depictions of vampires and witches in movies and televisions, have provided an added element to spur aimless youth towards violence.
"I was passing through a town where there had been some recent incidents and people said the witches were supposed to be in touch with some guy in the US who was directing them, and that the witches had capes that they would put on, rendering themselves invisible," he said, referring to a trip he made in 2004 to Tabubil, in the country's West. The journey coincided with a Harry Potter film — which depict a cape with such powers — reaching Papua New Guinea.
The United Nations has repeatedly urged the government to do more to clamp down on the practice, which it says falls into a general pattern of abuse of women. In June, UN human rights adviser Signe Poulsen said "There must be an end to impunity for those who incite or commit acts of violence against individuals accused of sorcery and witchcraft."
Catholic and evangelical leaders have also drawn attention to the killings. In a press release last week, the Vatican said "It is urgent… to develop a 'national response' in order to overcome the current mentality."
The statement went on to recognize that "even in Europe until centuries ago, especially during epidemics of plague, people were accused of causing illness and death through witchcraft."
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