Saturday, April 13, 2013

Vigilante Witch Hunting in New Guinea

In the Unitied States, when a child dies of a mysterious disease, the relatives form a charity to raise money for a cure and go on talk shows to promote their cause. In New Guinea, they form a mob and attack a woman they accuse of witchcraft. One recent case:
A young mother was stripped, tortured with an iron rod and then burned alive on a pile of tyres after being accused of being a witch in Papua New Guinea. Hundreds of bystanders, including many children, looked on as Kepari Leniata, 20, was doused in gasoline and set alight. Kepari, who had an eight-month-old baby, had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a six-year-old boy who died in hospital the day before. She was tortured and set alight by a mob in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen, national police spokesman Dominic Kakas said. "The incident happened in broad daylight in front of hundreds of eyewitnesses and yet we haven't picked up any suspects yet," Mr Kakas said. Mr Kakas said onlookers were shocked by the brutality but were powerless to stop the mob. Police officers were also present but were outnumbered and could not save the woman, he said. No arrests have yet been made.  
Since, like everyone else, the people of New Guinea now carry cell phones, many in the crowd took pictures of the event, which appeared on the front pages of the country's biggest circulating newspapers, The National and Post-Courier.

Media attention to these events has drawn in the UN, which sent a human rights inspector to investigate. He issued a report calling on the government to repeal a 1971 sorcery law, which makes witchcraft a crime and allows accusations of sorcery to be used as a defense in murder trials. The report argues that this law legitimizes the fear and hatred of witches. Amnesty International has also called for repeal. Just this week the Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, promised to repeal the law, but said it may take a while:
We have quite a lot of issues on the table, so please give us a chance to work on it. Realistically, a few sessions away, we will be able to put an act to Parliament to stop this nonsense about witchcraft and all the other sorceries that are really barbaric in itself.
I wonder if all this attention isn't at some level driven by the presence of the phones, and thus the photo documentation.

My reading of the situation is that ending these atrocities will be a long struggle. Violence against witches has deep roots in these societies, where the Witch Doctor has long been a major figure. Some of the most notorious acts have been carried out by Spirit Men (see picture at top), societies of young men who are encouraged to act as enforcers of traditional moral behavior. Directed by influential elders, they are given alcohol or other drugs and sent to carry out horrific violence in the name of society and the old way. One of these societies was broken up by police last year:
In other sorcery-related killings, police arrested 29 people in July last year accused of being part of a cannibal cult in Papua New Guinea's jungle interior. They were charged with the murders of seven suspected witch doctors. Police alleged they ate their victims' brains raw and made soup from their penises. By eating witch doctors' organs the cult members believed they would attain supernatural powers.
The upheaval created by exposure to the West has made the tensions that lead to these killings worse. People of the islands live in a confused, in-between state, partly members of their traditional societies and partly citizens of the broader world, partly Christian and partly pagan. The conflict between these very different ways of thinking and living has led to violence in many places, as with the plague of "honor killings" in Pakistan. Many people experience this social conflict as personal anxiety, not knowing where to turn for help, and in this state they are easily aroused to hatred against supposed witches.

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