Papua New Guinea, one of the largest island nations in the world, is also one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. With hundreds of distinct languages across the island's many tribes, and as many, if not more distinct cultures, PNG is a testament to humanity's past and future. While Papua New Guinea continues to become an important member of the modern world and globalized economy, one barbaric ritual plagues its inhabitants across many of the island's villages and tribes.
Episodes of witch-killing - that is, the vicious murders of women, and sometimes men and children, who are accused of sorcery - are reported often, with some believing the frequency and brutality is actually increasing. The details of the violence are truly harrowing. Learn about the horrifying trend that continues to spread across the island nation.
Women face the brunt of the vicious witch-killing in Papua New Guinea. Victims are often women without male relatives, or widows who have married into their husband’s village and then are left stranded after his death.
In 2013, 20-year-old mother Kepari Leniata was tortured and killed in her hometown of Mount Hagen in front of a mob that numbered in the hundreds. Leniata had been accused of killing a young local boy with sorcery, and as punishment, his relatives stripped her naked, covered her in gasoline, and burned her alive on a pile of trash. Since her death, Leniata's story - and the global outrage caused by her death - has been used as a rallying cry for those who are trying to fight violence against women across the globe.
While the reasons for witch-killing are often reported as individuals suspected of “casting spells” on other members of their community, studies show that property disputes play a large role:
Our work in the highlands with the Human Rights Defenders Network revealed that while in some cases accusations of sorcery are passed from family to family for generations and driven by strong beliefs, other claims are fabricated for financial gain. Recent research by Oxfam found that in 2 in every 3 accusations resulting in a relocation, sorcery accusations were used as a means of repossessing wealth or resources such as land, houses, or businesses of the person accused.
In 2013, journalist Jo Chandler noted that while there is a history of witch-killing and belief in black arts in Papua New Guinea, the ways in which the accused were being killed had seemingly grown more barbaric over time. He wrote that while in the past, a “witch” might simply be pushed from a cliff, now torture, often brutal and hours-long, is the norm.
In one Highland community, a group of eight “witch hunters” have claimed to have tortured and killed 18 people between them. "A witch hunter just collects information from any village where there is a problem, and then we go in and collect those people who are suspected of being witches," said the leader of the group. "It is part of my culture, my tradition, it's my belief. I see myself as a guardian angel. We feel that we kill on good grounds and we're working for the good of the people in the village."
In small villages and communities, where the belief in sanguma may be most culturally-embedded, the lack of access to justice outside of traditional courts is minimal. Policing Papua New Guinea witch murders is incredibly difficult, often made impossible by the witch-killing mobs that form.
In the case of Kepari Leniata, police and firefighters tried to save the young woman, who was burned alive on a pile of tires after the 20-year-old woman "confessed" under torture to killing a neighbor's six-year-old son. Their rescue attempts came up short, however, as the police were chased away by an overwhelming mob numbering in the hundreds.