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Papua New Guinea

Sorcery killings still an issue

Warning: Article contains graphic content and images.

Taboos based on centuries’ old myths and superstitions in the same age of the internet and mobile phones are well and truly alive – even today in Port Moresby.

Accusations of sorcery and witchcraft are a regular occurrence amid a culture that is home to hundreds of tribes, each with their own distinct beliefs and customs.

One of the most recent victims of almost violent accusations, who is using a pseudonym telling his story to The Pacific Advocate to protect his identity, never thought he would be attacked fetching some water.

John Kitip lives in an urban settlement on the fringes of Port Moresby with his only son, his daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

While heading outside the home for water at night, a group of men from his village, who live only streets away, jumped the unsuspecting man.
They accused Mr Kitip of casting spells while in the dark.

The 52-year-old is originally from Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands region.

He left his highlands village in 2007 due to tribal fighting and came to settle in the country’s capital.

After his wife passed away in 2002, he felt so lonely and moved to live with his son, who is employed as a security guard.

Mr Kitip, still shaken, recalls more than 10 men, possibly 15 of them, all pulling out bush knives, spades, sticks, stones and spears in the attack.

“I only decided to fetch water in the night because during the day people are usually crowded around that area,” he said.

This photo taken on November 20, 2018 shows 55-year-old mother-of-two Rachel at home in her village in the Tsak Valley in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, showing the scars from wounds inflicted on her when in April 2017 she was accused of sorcery and tortured with hot machetes, spades and rods for a full day by people she knew. – A spate of brutal witch hunts has plunged parts of Papua New Guinea’s highlands into a state of terror, as fearful tribes blame dark forces for their rapidly changing world. (Photo by PETER PARKS / AFP) / To go with AFP story PNG-crime-sorcery-unrest, FEATURE by Andrew Beatty

The settlement around Morota on the northern outskirts of Port Moresby has always had issues with water supply.

Residents are forced to get their water supply from one central location.

But completing one of the simplest of daily tasks had never been so life-threatening.

“I was screaming for help, but it was the early hours in the morning so nobody came out to help me,” he said.

“If people did hear, they chose not to interfere.”

Mr Kitip suffered knife and spear wounds from his head down to his toes.

Only a patrolling police car prevented the attack ending in death.

The police would save Mr Kitip’s life, later taking him to the station to file a report.

According to the police, the perpetrators defended their actions saying Mr Kitip practiced sorcery back in their village.

They claimed he came out of the house knowing that around midnight people were mostly inside their homes, making it easier for him to cast spells involving magical chants to bring them bad luck.

The grandfather denied the allegations and said he does not know how to cast spells that would bring ill luck to anyone.

He was “scared” and “ashamed” to get treated at a hospital so he called for a male nurse to attend to his home.

The nurse attended to sustained serious wounds that would take time to heal up.

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“These were people from warring tribes, they believe their rivals use magic and poison to attack each other during fights,” he told The Pacific Advocate.

Sorcery, also known as “sanguma” remains a serious issue in PNG.

Many of the victims are women and some are even small children.

Sorcery violence and death has been occurring for centuries and were once accepted as part of the country’s culture.

It was not until 1971 when the national government passed the Sorcery Act, which made the murder of accused practitioners of sorcery an illegal and criminal act.

The previous law had affirmed that magic was real, a plausible belief, which could be punishable by death.

Yet between 1980 and 2012, sorcery killings resulted in only 19 charges of murders or willful murders.

Witchcraft practitioners though were – and are – still imposed with the death penalty – although, there have been no executions since 1954.

Despite the new legal repercussions, death rates have continued to rise.

sorcery death funeral png
A sister of one of the churches speaks at a funeral of one of the many sorcery deaths in Papua New Guinea. Picture: Supplied

Authorities believe up to 50,000 people have been accused over the years and there are still more than 200 sorcery killings annually.

Sorcery killings in PNG continue because of a lack of punishment and law enforcement, Human Rights Watch says.

The PNG government still say they have been upholding their decision to hold individuals accountable for sorcery deaths, including eight men found guilty for a sorcery-related killing.

The PNG Tribal Foundation is also dedicated to helping sorcery-related violence victims that includes supplying safe houses around the country.

There are other organisations who are fighting to change societal views relating to the taboo practice.

A research project documented 1553 accusations in just four provinces in PNG between January 2016 and June 2020.

The project found 298 incidents involved physical violence, leading to 65 deaths, while another 86 victims suffered permanent injury while 141 others suffered serious harm.

The victims tell stories of discrimination and stigmatisation, banishment from families and communities, and extreme violence, such as beatings, burnings, cutting of body parts, amputation of limbs, torture and death.

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