Witch Hunting Is a Growing Problem in Papua New Guinea

It's gotten to the point that yesterday a government worker admitted the country has a sorcery refugee problem on its hands.

Traditional Baining fire dancers in Papua New Guinea. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.

Following reports last year of women and children fleeing torture and immolation by witch hunters in Papua New Guinea, yesterday a government worker in the remote Western Highlands province admitted that the region has a sorcery refugee problem on its hands.

Belief in sorcery is common and longstanding across Papua New Guinea, especially amongst the 80 percent of the seven-million-strong country who still live in rural villages. In 1971, rather than combat or deny these beliefs, the local government passed the Sorcery Act legalizing "white" (good) magic and criminalizing "black" (harmful) witchcraft to encourage locals to resolve their disputes with alleged sorcerers in court rather than via ad hoc accused lynch mobs.

But the killings never really stopped. And back in 2008 they started to become more common and gory, capturing international attention in February 2013 with the brutal public execution of a 20-year-old mother named Kepari Leniata. Despite efforts by the Papuan government to contain them, attacks against vulnerable men and women occur to this day.

In an effort to understand this crisis, VICE reached out to Father Franco Zocca, a long-serving clergyman and scholar in Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province . The director of the local Melanesian Institute , a cultural research center helping churches, governments, and non-governmental organizations understand and react to regional needs, Zocca has spent much of the past few decades researching and writing extensively on sorcery in rural Papuan society. Over a spotty phone line, Zocca held forth on the role of economic displacement, cultural shifts, and weak governance in seeding and spreading the current witchcraft-related killings and migrations.

VICE: Why are sorcery killings getting so common and violent in Papua New Guinea?
Father Franco Zocca: When you say sorcery-related killings, people—95 percent—think other people were killed by sorcerers. The mentality is always that nobody dies for nothing. There is always a who—either a spirit of somebody or a magician—behind the death.

The problem of this physical killing of the sorcerers is most prominent in the highlands, especially in Simbu among the Kuman speakers . In the other highlands [this violent torture killing wasn't as practiced], but this pattern now is spreading because the Simbu people... because of the poverty of their region, they are spreading around and they are bringing that pattern of accusation, torture, and killing that they did for centuries in their own places.

Some anthropologists, they think that in the past people tended to accuse the spirit of the ancestors. They say that now modern education and missionaries have taken away the fear of the ancestors so now (because the people are not satisfied with knowing the natural causes of sickness) they tend to accuse human beings—living people.

[In] many cases people are using this mentality to get rid of people they want to get rid [of]. People, they wanted to punish them for some reason and then they accuse them of sorcery.

So part of it has to do with the migration of particular groups that have a history of this style of killing, and part of it has to do with people who just want to settle vendettas?
Yes. Also in our research into the cases that appeared over those last six years, we found that even if accusations happened in, say, Port Moresby [the capital], Simbu people were very important [in them]. The accused have to leave and now they're living in settlements there.

One former bishop who was for 50 years a Catholic bishop in Simbu—he reckoned that one-third of the population of Simbu is displaced because of accusations or fears of sorcery. So you find those people in the settlements everywhere and they still keep that kind of mindset.

Some people think the increased violence in the murders has more to do with the spread of drugs and home brew [moonshine] than economic displacement. Do you think there's any truth to that?
The accusation comes from elders usually, but the violence is always done by young people—sometimes under the influence of alcohol or marijuana or something like that. There is no work for them. Every year tens of thousands of people are kicked out of the system because it is very selective. Many people, they don't go to school, and even those who finish don't find a job. So there is a lot of frustration. These people are using something that wasn't around in the past—marijuana or alcohol were not around in the past, you know.

Some reports say these aren't ad hoc killings any more, but that these young people are now permanent witch hunting gangs. Is that true?
It could be, but in my research I didn't really find gangs going out and killing the sorcerers, because they're always people from the home of the accused. For the police, a part of [the problem] is they are afraid to deal with sorcery. But apart form that there are no witnesses. Nobody wants to talk. It's very much the locals who are doing it with the collusion of the whole community.

You say this is displacing a lot of people. What will happen to these communities when a third of the population is running from sorcery accusations?
There are consequences. In the villages we really suffer now from the lack of leaders. The leaders in the highlands in the past, they were warriors. Tribal fighters have diminished during the years. But there is also a lack of leaders because the ones who are clever, they used to move to town... [in part] because they are afraid to be struck [by sorcery]. They always say this sorcery is triggered by jealousy—envy. So if you become too successful, you're in danger to be struck by the sorcerer. In the highlands, this fear is paralyzing the economy.

The government has tried to deter witch-hunts by repealing the 1976 Sorcery Act, which witch hunters used to defend their actions in court, and by reinstating capital punishment [out of use since 1954]. But it doesn't seem to be having a great effect...
The government, yeah, they repealed the law under the pressure of the international media, but without much conviction. You cannot change a cultural mentality like that just by repealing a law. To change the mentality—to accept natural causes of death over spiritual ones—would stop this. It happened also in Europe. We killed lots of witches in the Middle Ages, and then finally we accepted the natural causes of sickness and death. Then witch hunting stopped.

In the case of Europe, it took many, many years and gradual change for people to stop hunting witches. But in a place like Papua New Guinea it seems like there's a lot of damage that could happen if people just leave it to sort itself out over that long.
Exactly, and that's why the churches have to stop giving credit to this kind of thing, because that's part of the problem. They are people possessed by evil spirits. They say things like that. The people possessed in the time of Jesus, they were sick people. That was a way of explaining sickness, but we still find a lot of churches today that enforce those kinds of beliefs.

For me, it's more a matter of education than other things.

What do you think is the best hope for bringing education like that out to remote regions?
Increase the education and bring a good health system. Our health is terrible here, especially in the villages. A lot of med centers are closed down. No doctors want to serve in the rural areas. The government is happy, because instead of accusing the system, [people] are accusing each other.

What would make it easier for police to intervene, or for people to report witch hunts to help solve this in the short-term?
We don't have many policemen. We only have 7,000 for the whole country. In my research, in [one area] in Simbu, there was only one policeman for those cases of sorcery. They don't have cars. They don't have fuel. Often they are people from the same region. They are themselves very, very afraid of sorcery.

My team here, the local research team, they always refuse to interview the sorcerers—the old ladies who survive—because they are afraid too.

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