Kukurui was lean, friendly, and by community consensus, a depraved sorcerer.
I met him in 2017 while conducting fieldwork on Siberut Island in Indonesia. (His real name and that of his clan have been excluded for his safety.) He was almost 40 years old but had the boyish face of a 25-year-old. He was missing his two front teeth and had six children, all boys. When I arrived at his house to interview him, he invited me in and served me deer meat, a delicacy he had hunted himself.
I’d heard the stories about his dark magic from his former neighbors. He asked a girl to marry him. She rebuffed him, then died a week later. He yelled at a distant cousin. Within days, the cousin got a fever. He quarreled with family members. Then, when several of them died, the rest of his clan forced him, his brother, and his father to leave.
The rumors went beyond evil spells. His body, I was told by community members, was filled with the restless souls of his victims. The souls corrupted his mind, they said, urging him to kill people and commit incest. One person told me that Kukurui and his younger brother could transform into pigs. An old man said they could turn into worms.
Throughout the developing world, accusations of and attempts to perform witchcraft breed torture, banishment, and even murder.
When I met him, Kukurui had given up on society. He lived in a small house, a several-hour walk from the village on his clan’s ancestral land. He had paid so many fines, had handed over so many pigs and cooking pots to his supposed victims, that he couldn’t afford the $50 to send his oldest son to school. When I asked him in Mentawai, the local language, why he was targeted so often, he blamed his tendency to explode in arguments: “I get angry, and then they think I want to hurt them.” He admitted that he got into fights, but assured me he wasn’t a witch.
There are others with experiences like Kukurui’s across Indonesia—and around the globe. His persecution is just one example of what human rights experts call “harmful practices related to witchcraft beliefs.” Throughout the developing world, accusations of and attempts to perform witchcraft breed torture, banishment, and even murder. Some of the violence is horrific, but most of it, like Kukurui’s ostracism, is invisible to governments and largely undocumented.
Now, a group of lawyers, scholars, and advocates is working to fight these human rights violations by campaigning for international guidelines for how to both identify and punish witchcraft-related violence. But there’s no obvious solution. The problem manifests differently in every culture, and rooting it out would require altering millions of people's worldviews while making sure not to stomp out otherwise unique and valuable cultural beliefs.
For most people in the U.S., witch hunts are a thing of the past. We might use them as metaphors for political persecution, but the idea of attacking someone for using dark magic seems anachronistic. Yet today, more than 300 years after 19 people were hanged in colonial Massachusetts, witch hunts occur worldwide on a scale that even experts can’t comprehend.
For people around the world, witchcraft beliefs are a way of interpreting misfortune. A baby gets sick; a brother contracts AIDS; a mother is bitten by a snake—and the first questions are who did it and how. Sometimes, those suspected of using dark magic are distrusted pariahs who already live on the margins of society. Other times, they’re people with a clear reason to harm the victim, like an unrequited lover or a jealous co-wife. Such a worldview is devilishly sticky: Researchers found that even when people adopt biomedical explanations of illness, witchcraft explanations persist. As long as people see malice behind misfortune, they’ll attack the people they suspect to be responsible.
Fears that other people are using dark magic, while often misdirected and overblown, are not entirely baseless. Just as people attack suspected witches, other people attempt magic in private, both for malicious purposes and mundane ones like getting rich. Sometimes, the attempted witchcraft is itself the cause of the violence, like when attackers target people with albinism or kyphosis to procure their body parts for spells.
Still, human rights advocates are adamant that they want to end the harm that stems from witchcraft belief, rather than magical practices more generally. According to Miranda Forsyth, a legal scholar at Australia National University, “[Witchcraft] is used in traditional medicine. It’s used in traditional gardening. It’s an important source of cultural power. So, nobody wants to say, ‘Stop all of that.’” Instead, the objective is to end “horrible human rights abuses that stem from beliefs in witchcraft.”
"The extreme violence that is very easy to document is just the very tip of the iceberg."
There are near-daily reports of such abuses in the developing world. During a single week this past September, in India alone, a boy murdered his aunt after accusing her of being a witch; a man was doused with petrol and immolated after a 10-year-old girl fell sick; and 22 women pulled the teeth of six men said to be witches—and then forced them to eat feces.
That week wasn’t anomalous. The week before had just as many atrocious reports: Two South African brothers whipped their father to death for allegedly magically causing their bad luck, while a south Indian man was axed to death and burned on the same pyre used to cremate the woman he was suspected of killing.
Nailing down global statistics on the issue is difficult because most instances of such violence go unreported, but one group of experts collected cases from more than 60 countries. A U.N. report from 2009 summarized some of the data from single countries and showed staggering numbers. In Tanzania, 5,000 people were killed in a four-year period. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, “more than 60 percent of the 25,000 street children in Kinshasa had been kicked out of their homes due to allegations of witchcraft.” In the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, “more than 100 women are tortured, paraded naked or harassed in the state every year.”
According to experts, these numbers are likely vast underestimates. “The extreme violence that is very easy to document is just the very tip of the iceberg,” said Forsyth, “because a lot of the time, the harm that comes is from stigmatization.”
The violence isn’t restricted to the developing world. According to human rights experts, more than 1,600 cases of witchcraft-related child abuse were reported in the U.K. between March 2017 and March 2018. The most widely publicized cases are exorcisms of supposedly possessed children that occur in African migrant communities. In these exorcisms, children suspected of harboring evil spirits are cut (to create a way out for the spirit), beaten (to force the devil out), and semi-strangled (to squeeze the life out of the evil). According to a 2006 report by the U.K. Department of Education and Skills, one child was starved until they lost half their body weight. Others were abandoned overseas.
“I know the smells. I’ve seen the debris on the street of someone who has just been burnt alive.”
As long as governments punish violence against suspected witches, accusers are discouraged from attacking outright. But this doesn’t prevent them from denouncing suspected witches in other ways. A study published in Nature Human Behavior last year showed that entire villages in southwestern China are structured according to witchcraft beliefs. People refrain from interacting with suspected witches, leading the accused to segregate themselves and establish marginal social networks.
Such silent persecution is common in places where people believe in witchcraft. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, “[People accused of being witches] carry around what they refer to as a ‘birthmark’ or ‘name tag,’” said Forsyth. “It’s burned onto their forehead for life.” As a result, “wherever they go—even the children, even a baby—will have to bear the burden of carrying this name.”
Growing up in southwestern Nigeria, lawyer Ikponwosa Ero says she encountered “the evil” of witchcraft-related violence first-hand. “We weren’t allowed as children to be around when violence would break,” she said. Still, she experienced the aftermath. “I know the smells. I’ve seen the debris on the street of someone who has just been burnt alive.”
Those experiences are, in part, what led Ero to become one of the leading advocates for eliminating witchcraft-related violence globally.
In high school, Ero moved from Nigeria to Vancouver, Canada. She became a lawyer, worked for the Canadian Department of Justice, and in 2008, joined Under the Same Sun, an NGO devoted to ending discrimination towards people with albinism. In 2015, the U.N. Human Rights Council made her its first-ever Independent Expert on the human rights of people with albinism.
Through her advocacy, Ero quickly learned that witchcraft beliefs are a major cause of violence against people with albinism—a cause that’s almost completely neglected by the human rights community. “Persons with albinism are hunted and physically attacked due to prevailing myths, such as the misbelief that their body parts, when used in witchcraft rituals and potions or amulets, will induce wealth, good luck, and political success,” Ero wrote in her first report for the U.N. There, she also explained why attackers sometimes hack the limbs off people while they’re still alive: “Reportedly, there is a corollary witchcraft belief that it is preferable to harvest body parts from live victims because these screams increase the potency of the potion for which the parts are used.”
"Once the U.N. recognizes it, then governments will have to recognize it."
For Ero, witchcraft-related attacks on people with albinism are “part of a system.” She explained that the assumptions that provoke such violence stem from long-held cultural beliefs about magic, beliefs that also inspire violence towards women, children, and other marginal groups accused of practicing dark magic. Realizing the depth of the issue, Ero began to devise “a system-wide strategy.” She reached out to other U.N. experts, as well as the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), a U.K.-based non-profit aimed at advocacy and education. Together, they designed what Ero calls “a human rights-based counter-attack.”
In 2017, Ero and WHRIN organized the U.N.’s first meeting on witchcraft and human rights. Referred to as “ground-breaking” by the U.N. deputy commissioner on human rights, the workshop started conversations among experts, victims, and state officials.
“It was a big milestone for the work,” said Gary Foxcroft, the director of WHRIN. Foxcroft had been meeting with U.N. experts on witchcraft and human rights since 2009, but it was during the 2017 meeting that “it started to feel like we were getting somewhere.”
The workshop drew attention to the scale of the violence and inspired a string of other conferences. But more importantly, it spawned a working group that has been collaborating with Ero. The group includes experts from WHRIN, the National FGM Centre, and the British law firm Doughty Street Chambers, as well as researchers at Lancaster University, Australia National University, and the Divine Word University in Papua New Guinea.
The group’s main objective is for the U.N. Human Rights Council to issue a resolution. Resolutions have no binding power, but they express the opinion of the U.N., pressuring governments to pay attention.
For Ero, an effective resolution should do at least three things. First, it should openly condemn witchcraft-related violence, signaling to NGOs and governments that the abuses are unacceptable. Second, it should establish common terms for witchcraft-related persecution. Agreeing on what qualifies as a witchcraft-related harmful practice is crucial. Not only does it allow governments to better track violence, but it also protects neopagans and indigenous practitioners who harmlessly identify as practicing witchcraft.
“The final thing,” Ero said, “is to support creating guidelines at an international level.” Pointing to guidelines on leprosy and internally displaced persons, Ero expects that global regulations for dealing with witchcraft-related abuses will help member states “develop regional guidelines” adapted to their local contexts and cultures.
“I don’t think it’s going to stop this century."
Perhaps most important, however, is the resolution’s symbolic impact. “Once the U.N. recognizes it, then governments will have to recognize it,” said Foxcroft. “Until the U.N. recognizes it, it’s going to be very difficult for us to bring about big change.”
Member states in Africa, Asia, and Europe have expressed interest in moving a resolution forward in the upcoming Human Rights Council sessions in 2020. But some advocates are frustrated with the U.N.’s involvement up to this point, which, at least openly, has gone little beyond providing meeting space.
“In 2005, the U.N. accepted the responsibility and will to act in situations where states fail in their duty to protect their citizens,” wrote Leo Igwe, a Nigerian human rights advocate and the campaigns director at WHRIN. To Igwe, the violence evidences a clear inability of states to protect victims, and for that reason, “the U.N. needs to step in.”
Regardless, the advocates agree that the U.N. is only the first step. “I don’t think it’s going to stop this century,” said Foxcroft, “might not stop next century.” But he hopes that “when they do finally pass this resolution—when they fully understand and then acknowledge the scale of the problem —then it will set in motion a series of interventions that will help put a stop to it.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.