As of January 2018, the world is surely an interesting place indeed. Amid Donald Trump’s genocidal tweets, fake Hawaii missile threats, a U.S. government shutdown and anti-regime protests threatening Iran’s political stability, people in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are still hunting witches.
According to the Diplomat, “real life witch-hunts that end in torture or murder are so commonplace they rarely make the evening news.” This reality persists despite the fact that, since 2013, witch-hunting is supposed to attract the death penalty after a 20-year-old woman accused of witchcraft was burnt alive on a busy street corner as hundreds of people looked on. The Diplomat reports that the majority of these incidents go uninvestigated by police.
Sanguma, or sorcery, still continues to plague PNG to this day. To some people in PNG, any death that cannot be explained by old age can be believed to have a malevolent agent behind it. It would be reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, were it not for the fact that some people have been uploading photos of witch-burning onto social media.
In 2016, the Guardian detailed an account of one man in PNG who recounted the tale of his own “death”, which led to the torture of four women who had been accused of killing him. One woman died and two were exiled after the ordeal.
“She came and ate my heart while I was still sitting in the house,” the man says as quoted by the Guardian. “I felt so cold and shivering that I went and lay down at the doorway to the room.
“And I called out ‘Sande, Sande’ and passed out. That was the end. I died like any other dying person.”
At the end of 2017, the Huffington Post reported that a U.S. missionary by the name of Anton Lutz has dedicated much of his life trying to save women and girls from being tortured and murdered in their communities after being accused of witchcraft. Lutz allegedly saved a six-year-old girl accused of sorcery from being tortured by a group of men and she subsequently made a very narrow escape with her life.
“Someone has to do something. If we can convince people to allow the women to be released to hospital without police going in with guns to do it, that’s probably OK. I mean, the police need to arrest perpetrators, but it’s not up to me to tell the police whom to arrest,” Lutz told the Huffington Post.
The girl’s mother, Kepari Leniata, is the same woman who was burned alive in public in 2013 referred to above, which prompted the death penalty. Not surprisingly, witchcraft allegedly runs in the family.
But as the Diplomat explains, the resulting experience was no joke for the accused. From the Diplomat:
“The drama began when a man fell ill at a remote village in Enga Province in the highlands of PNG. It could have been HIV/AIDS or just an upset stomach. But his sickness was diagnosed as kaikai lewa (to eat the heart), where a witch uses black magic to secretly remove and eat the victim’s heart to gain their virility. As the daughter of a woman who’d been accused of the same crime, the six-year-old girl was fingered as the prime suspect. So a group of villagers took her, stripped her naked, and tortured her for days, using hot knives to remove the skin from her back and buttocks.”
But why would these beliefs persist even in the technological age?
“A few years ago, I was in bed with my wife when my legs started vibrating violently,” says Joseph Suwamaru, an educator in the capital Port Moresby, as quoted by the Diplomat. “My wife tried to hold them down and it was transferred to her body like a possession. I started yelling ‘In the name of God I command you to leave this house!’ and it did.”
He adds: “It’s difficult for me to believe this nonsense. I have two masters degrees and a Ph.D. but I’m caught between two worlds.”
If anything, the technological age has had a more backwards effect in spreading these particular beliefs. While people in the rural areas were traditionally cut off from the major cities until the last 30 years or so, witch-hunt inspired attacks have now spread from these remote areas into the larger towns and cities where the problem barely existed before.
According to the Diplomat, a 20-year long study by the Australian National University of 1,440 cases of torture and 600 killings found less than one percent of perpetrators were successfully prosecuted.