The gruesome fate of ‘witches’ in Papua New Guinea

IT BEGAN, as it usually does, with an unexpected death: in this case, of Jenny’s husband, an esteemed village leader in the province of Eastern Highlands, in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Some local boys accused Jenny of having cast a spell to kill him.

She says they began beating her over the head with large branches. Her family supported her accusers.

She fled into the surrounding fields, eventually making her way to the provincial capital of Goroka, where she has lived for the past three years.

“I can never go back to my village and I never want to see my family again,” she said.

Jenny was lucky: she escaped.

Every year, hundreds of suspected witches and sorcerers are killed in PNG. Accusers often enlist the aid of a “glass man” (or “glass Mary”): a diviner whom they pay to confirm their accusations. Most of the victims are poor, vulnerable women including widows like Jenny. “If you have a lot of strong sons,” says Charlotte Kakebeeke of Oxfam, a charity, “you won’t be accused.”

When the accused try to take shelter with relatives, their families often reject them: the supposed witches’ husbands have paid their families a “bride price” which would have to be returned if the bride left the husband’s family.

Sometimes accusers come from within the family: Eriko Fufurefa, who runs the KAFE Women’s Association, a feminist group in Eastern Highlands, says that the nephew of a local politician blamed his own mother for his uncle’s death.

“They chopped her with a machete and beat her with iron bars,” says MsFufurefa, putting her in hospital for a month.

This too has grown more common: MsKakebeeke says accused sorcerers used to be dispatched quietly, at night. Now they are subjected to “public torture spectacles—it has become a mass movement”.

Belief in sorcery is widespread in PNG. Only in 2013 did the government repeal a law that criminalised sorcery and allowed accusations of witchcraft as a defence in murder cases. Locals do not believe that sorcerers or witches are inherently malign: many claim—or believe in—magical healing powers, and the ability to bring favourable weather.

Monica Paulus is a human-rights activist whose brother once accused her of using sorcery to kill their father (she thinks he wanted the family house). She tells people they have a right to believe what they want, but ‘they do not have the right to cause violence or take a life.’

She also reminds people that, as Christians, they believe that the body dies, but the spirit lives.

The spirit, she said with a glint in her eye, ‘will find another body to live in, and it could be you: if you kill a witch, that means you could become a witch yourself.’