Brutal witch hunts in Papua New Guinea tied to jealousy

AP

12:44 a.m. CDT June 10, 2013
Story Highlights
  • Hundreds of cases of violent witch hunts have been documented
  • The violence appears to be spreading across the island
  • Some attribute the violence to economic %27jealousy%27

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — 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 witch hunters to Rumbali’s home.

Violence linked to witch hunts 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 witch hunting appears to be spreading to parts of the country where the ruthless practices never took place before.

There is no clear explanation for the apparent uptick in killings in parts of the South Pacific nation, and even government officials seem at a loss to say why this is happening. Some are arguing the recent violence is fueled not by the nation’s widespread belief in black magic but instead by economic jealousy born of a mining boom that has widened the country’s 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, which is 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.

“That was definitely a case of jealousy because her family is really quite well off,” Hakena said.

She said villagers were envious because Rumbali’s husband and son had government jobs, they had a “permanent 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 and 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 defense for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery. The government repealed the law in response to the recent violence.

“There’s no doubt that there are really 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 in Papua New Guinea don’t appear to be motivated by a genuine belief in the occult, but instead are a pretext under which the wealthy can be attacked by poorer neighbors, and, many times, get away with it.

She and other experts on witchcraft in the Melanesia region believe Papua New Guinea’s newfound prosperity and the growing inequality in its traditionally egalitarian culture is a significant cause of the violence. Neighboring Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where belief in black magic is also widespread, haven’t seen the same level of extreme violence against accused witches.

The difference, they say, is that Papua New Guinea has had the fastest economic growth.

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, increasing on average almost 7 percent annually from 2007 to 2010. Growth peaked at 8.9 percent in 2011 before slowing to 8 percent last year.

The Asian Development Bank reported last year that Papua New Guinea has one of the highest levels of inequality, if not the highest, in the Asia-Pacific region.

These socio-economic problems have inevitably played into a cultural landscape that includes a belief in witches and black magic, said Kate Schuetze, a regional researcher for Amnesty International.

“There is always a reason for the accusation, whether it’s jealousy, wanting to access someone else’s land, a personal grudge against that person or a previous land dispute,” Schuetze said.

Papua New Guinea Deputy Public Prosecutor Ravunama Auka doesn’t buy that jealousy has been behind a significant number of the sorcery-related slayings he had dealt with. While he did not have statistics, he said most victims were slain due to a genuine belief that they had killed through sorcery.

Auka had no doubt sorcery-related slayings were increasing, but could not explain why.

“There are all sorts of reasons, not only because some people are wealthy and some are not,” Auka said.

Another possible explanation is the spread of particularly vicious sorcery beliefs that before were just seen in the highland province of Chimbu, said anthropologist Philip Gibbs, a sorcery specialist and Roman Catholic priest who has lived in the wilds of Papua New Guinea for the past 41 years.

In Chimbu, people bury their dead in concrete so that the bodies will not be eaten at night by small demonic animals that they believe can possess the living. Villagers pay witch doctors to divine who among them are possessed by these demons, which they believe leave the person’s body at night and take on the form of any small animal.

Gibbs said those suspected of being possessed are often tortured to make confessions and are sometimes killed.

“That form is spreading to other provinces where it’s never existed before and we’re asking the question why,” Gibbs said.

Accused families abandon their small farms in a hurry, usually taking only what they can carry in a bag. The villagers must then decide who occupies the vacant land.

“That’s where the jealousy and the greed can come in,” Gibbs said.

Papua New Guinea is under growing international pressure to respond to the violence after a series of high-profile cases made world headlines.

In February, a mob stripped, tortured and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of horrified witnesses in Mount Hagan, the country’s third largest city. In July, police arrested 29 people accused of being part of a cannibal cult in Papua New Guinea’s jungle interior and charged them with the murders of seven suspected witch doctors.

In the case of Rumbali, which took place in April, no arrests have been made, but police said they are treating it as “first degree murder.”

Police Senior Inspector Cletus Tsien would not speculate on the motive for the crime.

“We know that this family was wealthy. We know that maybe there were bits and pieces of jealousy. We know they were accused of sorcery … but there’s no concrete evidence as to which factor contributed to the death of the late woman,” Tsien said.

12:44 a.m. CDT June 10, 2013

A 21st Century Witch Hunt

Witch hunts increase in Tanzania as albino deaths jump

TONNY ONYULO | Special for USA TODAY

Updated 7:45 a.m. CST Feb. 27, 2015

TABORA, Tanzania — Many women are living in fear in this rural part of northwestern Tanzania because they are increasingly being targeted by witch hunts — literally.

This East African country is grappling with an upswing in vigilante justice as villagers attack women they believe are witches responsible for the murders of albinos, whose white skin some believe possess magical powers.

Last month, some 200 angry villagers — mostly youths carrying axes, machetes and knives — grabbed Jane Faidha Bakari, 58, in Tabora, hacked her with sharp weapons and burned her alive while her helpless husband watched.

“They came around midnight banging on the door,” said Moses Bakari, her husband. “They broke into the house and hacked my wife with machetes and knives. They burned the body of my wife and later set fire on my house. They claimed that my wife was practicing witchcraft and killing albinos.”

The villagers believed the woman was using body parts from albinos — people born with the absence of pigment in their skin, eyes and hair — to practice witchcraft. Bakari fled with his three children and took refuge in a neighbor’s house.

“I neither knew nor heard that my wife was practicing witchcraft,” Bakari said. “I still don’t believe that I lost my wife to such a painful death. I will only heal if justice is done, because she was innocent.”

The murder of Bakari’s wife isn’t uncommon. Frightened neighbors-cum-vigilantes lynched, stoned or hacked more than 1,000 women to death last year, according to the Center for Advocacy in Rural Development, a Kenyan development group, and the Dar es Salaam-based Legal and Human Rights Center. The groups estimate more than 3,000 suspected witches, usually late middle-age and older women, were killed in the past six years alone.

“The government has failed to apprehend witch doctors who kill our innocent people,” said Wilson Asida, a Tabora resident. “They have killed many albinos to help them gain magical powers. We’ll kill them ourselves to get justice.”

Asida accused the government — which banned witchcraft in January — of relying too much on the courts to prove whether women were practicing witches. “They pretend as if they don’t know witchcraft exists,” he said.

Attacks against those with albinism also seem to be on the rise, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement last week, citing at least three incidents in the past two months. The statement was in response to the “horrific murder and mutilation” of a 1-year-old baby with albinism earlier this month.

The agency worries the killings will only rise in the run-up to October’s Tanzanian presidential elections as political campaigners seek the help of seers who use albino body parts to foretell the future.

In the past 15 years, at least 75 albinos have been killed in Tanzania, but prosecutors have convicted just 10 people in those murders, according to the U.N. Albino organs fetch hundreds of dollars in illegal trading. Around 33,000 people out of a population of about 50 million have albinism, according to the Tanzanian Albinism Society.

Older women are suffering from the backlash against witches as a result of the albino deaths, said Erick Wandera Omwami, chief executive of the Center for Advocacy in Rural Development, who is pushing the government to expand its education campaign against killing albinos to include admonitions against harming alleged witches.

“It’s unlucky for older persons to live in this region, but we should know that every older person has a right to life like anyone else,” he said. “We’ll work together to help communities understand the rights of others and avoid retrogressive and barbaric actions on other human beings.”

Tanzanian police admit witchcraft-related killings are common in the country’s northwest but say catching the culprits is difficult. The lynchings tend to occur after someone dies unexpectedly in the community or when albinos go missing, said police spokesman Ignas Mtana.

Often, he said, sorcerers identify other witches as the perpetrators of the misfortunes. Because the same people who attack witches often consult with other enchanters and potentially also deal in albino body parts, it’s hard to get to the bottom of the cases, Mtana said.

The family members will go to soothsayers to find out the cause of death and the responsible person,” Mtana said. “The soothsayers will say the name of a witch as the cause of death.”

Mtana said police intervene in lynchings they witness and arrest anyone attacking a suspected witch on sight, but forces are spread thin throughout the region, which includes the great plains of the Serengeti.

In the meantime, women are hiding out of fear of being attacked.

“Someone dropped leaflets bearing my name” on a list of suspected sorceresses, said Rosemary Aziza, 76, who lives near Tabora. “I will hide until the things go back to normal.”