Sorcery Accusations and Related Violence in Papua New Guinea
Updated: Sep 7
“If you kill her, so be it” those were the word’s the uncle of a seven-year-old girl said to an angry mob accusing her of sorcery in 2017. The young girl was accused of using dark powers to cause her cousin’s illness and afterwards tortured for five days with hot machetes. This is one of many Sorcery Accusations, and Related Violence (SARV) cases taking place in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It is a pressing reality that has killed 610, 340 wounded and 493 suffered property or psychological damage in ten years. Furthermore, according to Oxfam and the Queensland University of Technology, cases spiked from 2013 to 2016, accounting for 232 cases. According to this report, 56% of the victims were female, 89% of the perpetrators were male, and they had an average age of 40 years. SARV is mainly present in Morobe since it accounts for 15% of all the accusations. Chimbu follows with 14%, the Eastern Highlands with 13% and the Western Highlands with 10%. Although the number of victims reflects a critical issue, local activists have estimated that killing can reach up to 50,000 cases that have been left out under the radar of the authorities. When a victim has been accused, methods of lynching can vary from neglection of the community, stigmatisation and property damage to mob tortures and burning them alive.
Sanguma and Glassmen
Behind practices of SARV, there is a deep-rooted cultural belief in what is defined as "sanguma", meaning sorcery or black magic in Tok Pisin, one of PNG’s official languages. Sanguma does not only involve SARV, but different practices based on supernatural mystic beliefs that manifest through various forms depending on the region. For example, the Kukurai people from the Madang coast, are acknowledged as physical manifestations of sorcery. They combine sorcery and leadership to structure the social organisation of the community. Additionally, if a Kukurai shows interest in marrying a daughter from the village or another community in the area, despite the age difference, the family must submit under his request. Sanguma is also present in the Simbu province in the Eastern Highlands where it is widely believed in the Kumo/Ghumo, who has the capacity killing by eating someone’s inner organs. As such, sanguma is a complex term that differs according to each community and region in PNG. However, this belief shares similar views on life issues that can only be attributed to supernatural powers.
Although sanguma is an integral part of PNG’s culture and traditions, it can become problematic when it is used as a justification for lynching, torture and ultimately the murder of “witches”. As sanguma is a belief that explains issues transcending human power, it attributes sorcery as the cause of unfortunate events in daily life. Eventually, a victim must be targeted and blamed for tragic events without a solid base. Often, when a member of the community contracts, a disease villagers seek someone to blame for sorcery and using her or his dark powers to cause harm. That was the case of Theresia Hari in the Chimbu province. After a man died of Malaria, villagers disagreed with the report the doctors provided. Instead, they attributed his death to sorcery and dark magic, targeting the man’s mother-in-law and Theresa. Both women were captured, tortured with hot knives, and after they lost consciousness, both were burnt alive inside a traditional hut house. This event had no justification since the doctor’s report clearly stated that the man had died of Malaria. Despite the evidence, villagers decided to go forward with the accusation and prosecution but who reassured villagers that sorcery was the cause of misfortune?
Perhaps the answer points out towards the “Glassmen”, who is most commonly known as witch-finders. Glassmen are essential for the lynching process because they have the power to determine if the targeted victim of SARV accusations is a sorcerer and is practising dark magic to harm or not. However, Glassman can find ways of profiting by pointing out victims randomly. Gary Bustin, director of the Tribal Foundation, explains that people who go from village to village claiming that they can tell who is a sorcerer if they get paid 1,000 kina or $300. If the Glassman decides that the accused one is not a sorcerer, then mobs leave him or her alone and seek for a different victim. This massive power rests in a unique person that might embrace the opportunity and seek ways of benefiting at the cost of human lives. Although Glassmen play an important role, multiple factors cause SARV in PNG. They can be triggering events such as unexpected deaths or sicknesses, proximate factors such as land or tribal disputes, or more complex structural factors such as poverty, poor health and justice system and lack of education. All these factors add up layers of complexity to the issue of SARV, making it an issue harder to address.
Implications on the victims and the role of the authorities in SARV cases
The implications of SARV in victims can range from long to short term and can be physical or psychological. After a victim has experienced sorcery violence, he or she can be left traumatised by losing body parts, post-traumatic syndrome provoked by torture, left homeless, having their houses burnt and expelled from their communities. Yet, if victims try to seek asylum in another community, they will probably not be accepted by fear of retaliation. As such, some victims are even locked up in jail for their safety and protection. The underlying mechanism behind the causes and the consequences of SARV is a response from traditional communities to challenges posed by globalisation, inequality and change. New challenges brought with globalisation such as illnesses, inequality, social media, climate change and foreign investment in tribal communities that aim to extract resources, can destabilise and disappoint communities. Mainly because external shocks leave communities incapable of controlling the conditions that affect them and consequently use sorcery accusations as a scapegoat to enhance their feeling of power over unfortunate daily issues.
Thus, the local authorities play an important role in containing SARV practices as well as supporting communities to find different ways to direct feelings of frustration, through better education, healthcare and legal systems. There is already an ongoing collaboration between PNG’s government, the police, NGOs, churches and schools. Through this partnership, programmes such as the SARV National Action Plan initiated in 2015, which address core areas through counselling, health sector, and child protection are taking place. However, police limited funding and reluctance hinder investigations and resolution of SARV cases. Some of the reasons police response has been limited are unavailability of vehicles, lack of resources such as fuel and human resources. When police are unable to contain events of sorcery accusations, people tend to resort to escalating violence as an alternative resort. On these terms, it is imperative to provide further light on SARV issues, not only to address the pressing consequences but tackling this issue with stronger education, healthcare and justice systems. If killings, torture and accusations increase, local communities will face an insecurity crisis, limiting development and stability for all villagers.
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