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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.
Suspected witches — mostly women but including some men and even children — have been subjected to horrific torture before being hanged or thrown off cliffs.
A growing Aids crisis and the collapse of health services have sapped villagers’ faith in Western medicine and prompted a return to ancestral beliefs.
Barely educated villagers living in remote mountain valleys are blaming the increasing number of Aids deaths not on promiscuity or a lack of condom use but on malign spirits.
When Raphael Kogun’s uncle died two years ago, his family blamed a middle-aged married couple who they were convinced had become possessed by evil spirits. “We chopped their heads off with an axe and a bush knife,” said the 27-year-old farmer from Goroka, in Eastern Highlands province.
“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. We buried the bodies but then the police found out and started digging them up.”
Two of Kogun’s brothers were arrested under the Act of Sorcery incorporated into PNG’s criminal code, but the case collapsed because witnesses were too afraid to testify. 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. Belief in evil spirits is ubiquitous throughout 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.
A surge in the illegal growing of marijuana in the emerald green valleys has contributed to black magic paranoia, experts say.
“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. “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.”
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 around two per cent of the population is HIV positive.
That is almost certainly an under-estimate. “The problem is far worse than the official statistics show. In some ante-natal clinics 30 per cent of women are positive,” said Claire Campbell, an Australian Aids campaigner working for the World Health Organisation.
“It’s only 75 years since the first white man walked over the hills,” said Mal Smith-Kela, PNG’s only white provincial governor.
“I’ve flown into villages where they tried to work out what sex the helicopter was by looking at the exhaust pipes.” 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.
“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.
“What is disturbing is that children are witnessing these things — the belief in sorcery and witchcraft is being passed on to the next generation.”
75 years after the first white man walked into Papua New Guinea …
(Posted on February 26, 2007)