Rekindled belief in sorcery leads to rise in grisly killings in PNG

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 February, 2007, 12:00am

When Raphael Kogun's uncle fell ill two years ago, his brothers knew exactly what to do. They called in a witchdoctor to find out who was responsible for him becoming bagarup - pidgin for sick, from the English 'buggered up'.

The finger of blame was pointed at a middle-aged couple living in Mr Kogun's village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, who were accused of being possessed by evil spirits and placing a curse on the man. 'We ran after them and we chopped their heads off with an axe and a bush knife,' Mr Kogun, 27, a farmer from Goroka, in Eastern Highlands province, said.

'I felt sorry for them but they were witches, they deserved to die. If they were still alive they could hurt people with their magic.'

Two of his brothers were arrested under the Act of Sorcery, incorporated into PNG's criminal code, but the case collapsed because witnesses were too terrified to testify.

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

Ancient beliefs in black magic and evil curses are back with a vengeance in jungle-clad mountain valleys that were unknown to the outside world until the 1930s. Alleged witches - mostly women but some men and even children - have been subjected to horrific torture then hanged or thrown off cliffs.

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

Barely educated villagers blame the increasing number of Aids deaths not on promiscuity or unprotected sex but on malign spirits.

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 throughout Papua New Guinea, where more than 850 languages are spoken by 5.5 million people.

In the highlands, witches are known as sangumas and are said to assume the form not only of humans, but animals such as dogs, pigs, rats and snakes.

When PNG was separate Australian colonies, colonial patrol officers and their native auxiliaries suppressed sorcery killings. But since independence in 1975, the old ways have undergone a gruesome renaissance. A surge in the illegal growing of marijuana has contributed to black-magic paranoia, experts say.

The recent acquisition of automatic weapons 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.

As in medieval Europe, accused sorcerers face a ghastly catch-22 predicament. 'If you don't confess you die. If you do they'll kill you,' said Reverend Spingler. He expects more witch murders as PNG's Aids crisis worsens. The country has the highest rate of Aids in the Pacific region, with the government estimating that about 2 per cent 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 per cent 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 backwardness of the highlands, which were only penetrated by Australian gold prospectors in 1930.

Last month police in Goroka uncovered the grisly killings of four women accused by villagers of using sorcery to cause a fatal road crash. After being tortured with hot metal rods and made to confess, they were murdered and buried upright in a pit. A banana tree was planted on top and it took police months to learn of the murders, which took place in October.

'The villagers believe they have to kill the 'witches', otherwise the whole clan is at risk from black magic,' said Jack Urame, 38, a member of the Dom tribe who has researched sorcery killings for the Melanesian Institute.