Friday, May 08, 2009

A revival of the belief in witchcraft in Papua New Guinea leads to the torture and murder of an increasing number of women

Papua New Guinea hosts hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups who speak over 800 different languages. The majority of the population lives in traditional societies and practice subsistence level agriculture in an area that is mostly mountainous. The country occupies the eastern half of the island New Guinea in the southwestern Pacific Ocean and gained its independence from Australia in 1975.

When bad things happen on a communal scale all too often scapegoats of one sort or another are sought out in different societies around the world. The reasons a person or group of people are singled out doesn’t have to be rational and often these reasons can be a cover for ulterior motives. The repercussions of being scapegoated can range widely but sometimes it becomes violent.

As reported here two years ago, women have been singled out as witches in Papua New Guinea for the AIDS epidemic. According the Sunday Herald there is a revival in the belief of black magic and evil curses and according to a story in today’s Independent witch-hunting along with the torture and murder of women is overwhelming efforts of the police.

This from the Sunday Herald:
Once hailed as an untouched Shangri-La, the mist-shrouded highlands of Papua New Guinea are undergoing a dramatic resurgence in sorcery and witchcraft.

Age-old beliefs in black magic and evil curses are back with a vengeance in jungle-clad mountain valleys which were unknown to the outside world until the 1930s.

The revival is being fuelled by a spiralling Aids crisis and the collapse of health services, sapping villagers' faith in Western medicine.

Barely educated villagers living in remote mountain valleys are blaming the increasing number of Aids deaths not on promiscuity or not using condoms, but on malign spirits.

Alleged witches - mostly women but also some men and even children - have been subjected to horrific torture before being hanged or thrown off cliffs.

The number of witch killings has been estimated at 200 a year in the neighbouring province of Simbu alone, although definitive figures are impossible to come by. A report by Amnesty International in September found there was a "conspiracy of silence" surrounding the murders.

"The police do little to penetrate this silence. Very few sorcery-related deaths are investigated and the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice," the report concluded.

Belief in magic is ubiquitous in Papua New Guinea, where more than 850 languages are spoken by 5.5 million people. In the highlands they are known as "sangumas" and can assume the form not only of humans, but animals such as dogs, pigs, rats and snakes.

When Papua and New Guinea were separate Australian colonies, colonial patrol officers and their native auxiliaries suppressed sorcery killings. But since independence in 1975, the old ways have gradually undergone a gruesome renaissance along the spine of saw-toothed peaks which divides Papua New Guinea in two.

A surge in the illegal growing of marijuana in the emerald green valleys has contributed to black-magic paranoia, experts say. The recent acquisition of automatic weapons, replacing traditional bows and arrows, has also emboldened the groups of young men who typically carry out the torture.

"We're seeing a big rise in witchcraft cases. We hear of a killing almost every week," said Hermann Spingler, a German Lutheran pastor who heads the Melanesian Institute, a cultural study centre in Goroka.

"If someone in Papua New Guinea dies prematurely, people ask not what caused the death, but who. They take the law into their own hands and torture people to make them confess'. They drag women on ropes behind vehicles, burn them with hot wire, chop off hands, fingers. People have been buried alive."

As in mediaeval Europe, accused sorcerers face a ghastly Catch-22 predicament. "If you don't confess, you die. If you do, they'll kill you," said Spingler.

He expects more witch murders as Papua New Guinea's Aids crisis worsens. The country has the highest rate of Aids in the Pacific region, with the government estimating that 2% of the population is HIV-positive. That is almost certainly an underestimate.

"The problem is far worse than the official statistics show. In some antenatal clinics 30% of women are positive," said Claire Campbell, an Australian Aids campaigner working for the World Health Organisation. The fear is that promiscuity, prostitution, sexual violence and a tradition of men having several wives could drive the country into an Aids epidemic of African proportions, with half a million infected with the disease by 2025.

The problem is exacerbated by the remoteness and less developed nature of the highlands, which were only penetrated by Australian gold prospectors in 1930. The Australian colonial government had assumed that the highlands were too wild to be inhabited; instead the prospectors stumbled on a thriving culture of more than a million people, living in a "land that time forgot" which had never been encountered before.

More than 75 years on, most villages are still miles from the nearest road, their inhabitants subsisting on a traditional diet of sweet potato, pigs and the game they can hunt in the forest.

Schools and aid posts established by the Australian colonial authorities have been abandoned, their funding siphoned off by corrupt politicians. Three decades after independence, there is still no road linking the capital, Port Moresby, with any major town.

To travel from the south coast to the north you must catch a plane - or, if you are a local, take to the vast network of paths that wind their way through the jungle.


"Villagers believe they have to kill the so-called witches, otherwise the whole clan is at risk from black magic," said Jack Urame, a member of the Dom tribe who has researched sorcery killings for the Melanesian Institute in Goroka.

Witchcraft killings, once confined to the highland provinces, are now occurring in coastal areas as mountain people migrate to towns such as Lae and Port Moresby in search of jobs.
You can read previous blog post referred above here, the Sunday Herald article here and the Independent article here.

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