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A war on witches

As witch-hunts and sorcery killings spread across Papua New Guinea, 101 East investigates shocking human rights abuses.

Last updated: 01 May 2014 13:58
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The naked woman is tied to a stake and burnt alive, tortured to death before an entire village.

Her alleged crime: Witchcraft.

This is not a scene from the 16th century. Such violence is taking place today in Papua New Guinea, where sorcery killings are spreading with a frequency and brutality that has drawn global condemnation.

In this disturbing investigation, 101 East exposes several unreported killings and the attacks on those who dare to help victims.

With police often unwilling to investigate attacks, witch-hunts are increasing, and survivors are forced to confront their own attackers.

Filmmaker's view 

By Aaron Fernandes

Traveling to Simbu province in the heart of Papua New Guinea’s vast and rugged Highlands region, my investigation into witch-hunts and sorcery killings began with a story of survival.

Children do not simply fall from trees. It is we women that have brought everyone into the world. And yet this is how they treat us? I want you to tell my story so that this will never happen to another woman

Mama Dini, survivor of an attack

Dini Koral had survived being tortured over several hours, and I was advised by local human rights volunteers that the ordeal had left her with horrific scarring.

But when we first met, I could see no visible marks on her face and hands. The formal interview concluded with me recording the details of her horrific attack and that appeared to be the end of it.

Until, conversing outside her traditional Highlands home, Mama Dini offered to show me the scarring left by the attack. I agreed and took my camera into her house.

Dini revealed the scars under her garments and showed where her attackers had cut her repeatedly with machetes heated over a fire, burning the skin as they pierced her flesh. There were several puncture wounds now covered by heavy scarring, and countless burns where the hot knives had been placed on her skin.

The tears began to flow from Dini’s eyes, a warm and open woman, as she recalled being accused of using sorcery to kill her son after he died in the local hospital.

I asked Mama Dini for her permission to use the sensitive images in my report on witch-hunts for Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme. She said yes, and later told me:

"Children do not simply fall from trees. It is we women that have brought everyone into the world. And yet this is how they treat us? I want you to tell my story so that this will never happen to another woman."

Sorcery killings in Papua New Guinea, and especially in the nation’s vast and rugged Highlands region, are rapidly becoming one of the world’s most urgent human rights issues. Resounding condemnation of the practice has come from the United Nations and international governments, urging the leaders of Papua New Guinea to do more to protect its citizens from sorcery accusation and torture.

The government responded by repealing the country’s Sorcery Act that gave official recognition to sorcery belief and made it easier for killers of suspected witches to defend the charges.

For many Papua New Guineans, there is resentment at what they see as Western values being imposed on their country, a form of neocolonialism that undermines indigenous culture.

Aaron Fernandes, filmmaker

But as I began my investigation, I realised the response has done little to stem the tidal-wave of violence spreading from the Highlands to the rest of the country.

I was astounded at the number of reports I received. It became routine that when I visited a village to report on a specific attack, several other villagers would come forward with their own stories of loved ones brutally murdered in witch-hunts.

I soon met Monica Paulus, a human rights volunteer helping survivors of sorcery abuse. I followed Monica throughout the Highlands responding to cases of violence, traveling on the backs of trucks and walking great distances to find shallow graves in forgotten locations.

At night, we sat in guesthouses discussing the belief in witch-craft until the generator ran out.

Monica would speak most often about the challenges of her work, of the inevitable exhaustion that comes from being hunted, and the need to support the few women like her working on the ground as Highlands Human Rights Defenders.

Growing partnerships with organisations like Oxfam and Amnesty International gave her some hope, she said, but there was still so much more to be done.

Despite a nationwide epidemic of violence against women and children, few of Papua New Guinea’s main towns have safe-houses and refuges for women affected by abuse, and survivors of sorcery attacks end up scattered into the care of relatives.

Most survivors reported serious flaws in the response from Papua New Guinea’s police investigating witch-hunts and sorcery violence, from bribery and corruption, to a lack of resources and general unwillingness to investigate.

Connect with 101 East

Using my knowledge of the local language and culture, I began traveling independently, investigating unreported cases in the remotest areas of the Highlands. There was simply no end to the number of sorcery accusations, tortures and killings, usually inflicted on women but occasionally on men and even children.

The difficulty was in establishing the facts of the case. Entire village communities would simply go silent out of fear of further attack. Even those employed to protect people, police officers, council representatives and NGO workers, were involved in witch-hunts.

Indeed, one worker for an international human rights organisation told me he had joined in no less than four deadly witch hunts, at one time throwing a woman’s body into the Waggi River with the help of a local politician.

For the people of Papua New Guinea, the belief in sorcery is at a crossroads. No longer isolated from the rest of the world, a country featuring some of the most ancient civilisations in human history is grappling with how its belief in witch-craft fits with the nation’s future.

For many Papua New Guineans, there is resentment at what they see as Western values being imposed on their country, a form of neocolonialism that undermines indigenous culture.

By the end of my investigation, I had the sense that despite the many months I had spent looking into witch-hunts and sorcery killings and the great distances traveled, there were countless victims that would simply never have their stories told. Their violent deaths, covered up in secret.

Beyond doubt, the government and people of Papua New Guinea have an immense task at hand, and the problem of sorcery killings demands an urgent response.

What can #PNG do to end sorcery killings and #witch hunts? Tell us @AJ101East

101 East  airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.  

Click here  for more  101 East    

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Al Jazeera
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