Papua New Guinea's growing wealth gap fuels torture, killing of 'witches'

Killings due to alleged sorcery spreading as black magic is used to resolve jealousy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 2:42am


On a tropical island in Papua New Guinea where most people live in huts, a mob armed with guns, machetes and axes stormed a wooden house by night. They seized Helen Rumbali and three female relatives, set the building on fire and took the women away to be tortured. Their alleged crime: witchcraft.

After being repeatedly slashed with knives, Rumbali's older sister and two teenage nieces were released following negotiations with police. Rumbali, a 40-something former schoolteacher, was beheaded.

Her assailants claimed they had clear proof that Rumbali had used sorcery to kill another villager who recently died of sickness - the victim's grave bore the marks of black magic, and a swarm of fire flies apparently led witchhunters to Rumbali's home.

Violence linked to witchhunts is an increasingly visible problem in Papua New Guinea - a diverse tribal society of more than 800 languages and 7 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers. Experts say witchhunting appears to be spreading to parts of the country where it never took place before.

There is no clear explanation for the apparent uptick in killings. Some are arguing the recent violence is fuelled not by the nation's widespread belief in black magic but by economic jealousy born of a mining boom that has widened the economic divide and pitted the haves against the have-nots.

"Jealousy is causing a lot of hatred," said Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee, based in the area Rumbali was killed. "People who are so jealous of those who are doing well in life, they resort to what our people believe in, sorcery, to kill them, to stop them continuing their own development."

She said the witchcraft accusation against Rumbali was just an excuse. Villagers were envious because Rumbali's husband and son had government jobs, they had a house made of wood, and the family had tertiary educations and high social standing.

The United Nations has documented hundreds of cases of sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea in recent years. Many more cases in remote areas are thought to have gone unreported. It found the attacks are often carried out with impunity.

Until last month, the country's 42-year-old Sorcery Act allowed for a belief in black magic to be used as a partial legal defence for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery. The government repealed the law in response to the recent violence.

"There's no doubt there are genuine beliefs there and in some circumstances that is what is motivating people: the belief that if they don't kill this person, then this person is going to continue to bring death and misfortune and sickness on their village," said Miranda Forsyth, a lawyer at Australian National University who has studied the issue.

But she said recent cases did not appear to be motivated by a genuine belief in the occult, but instead were a pretext under which the wealthy could be attacked by poorer neighbours and, many times, get away with it.

A wealth of mineral resources and natural gas has transformed the nation's long-stagnant economy into one of the world's fastest growing over the past decade.

But the Asian Development Bank reported last year that the country has one of the highest levels of inequality, if not the highest, in the Asia-Pacific.

Socio-economic problems inevitably played into a cultural landscape that included belief in witches and black magic, Amnesty International regional researcher Kate Schuetze said.