This terrifying cry by Papua New Guinean children opens “It’s 2013, and They’re Burning ‘Witches,’ ” a long and eloquent report in the Global Mail, an Australia-based online news site.
|Uncredited/Post Courier, via Associated Press|
“Leniata had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who had died in a hospital,” The A.P. reported.
The year 2013 or not, such violence against women is not uncommon in Papua New Guinea, where “witches” (in reality just women, often older ones) may be blamed when things go wrong, a reflection of the powerful belief in sorcery in Papua New Guinea, a Pacific nation just north of Australia. Women are often identified as witches and attacked when a man, or child, dies unexpectedly.
But there may be other reasons. As the Australian international television station Australia Network reported, in a resource-rich country undergoing a boom, accusing a woman of being a witch is an easy way to take her land.
Dame Carol Kidu, a Papua New Guinean politician, told the station: “There are other things involved nowadays, like greed, acquisition of people’s properties and land, and all sorts of things might be all be tied up in all of this, using killing the sorcerers as a reason to acquire land. So it needs to be investigated and we need to work out how we can deal with it. It is a very complex issue.”
The United Nations also found that accusations of sorcery can be used to kill women for a range of motives. “The U.N. human rights agency says they’ve seen an increase in these types of killings as well as torture and rape,” United Nations radio reported recently. “They say the accusations are often used to deprive women of land and property,”
What lies behind the ferocity? Traditional beliefs, alcohol and drug use among men, and uneven development in a country that is in the middle of a mining boom where, as the Global Mail said, “the wealth bypasses the vast majority.”
It said: “Enduring tradition widely resists the notion that natural causes, disease, accident or recklessness might be responsible for a death. Rather, bad magic is the certain culprit.”
The dead person if often a man; the culprit is a woman. Or a “witch.”
“When people die, especially men, people start asking ‘Who’s behind it?’ not ‘What’s behind it?’ ” Philip Gibbs, a longtime resident, anthropologist, sorcery specialist and Roman Catholic priest, told the Global Mail.
But in its report, the news site was careful to point out that while many Papua New Guineans believe in sorcery to some degree, that does not mean that they support the lynchings.
“City and country folk alike overwhelmingly ‘recoil in fear and disgust’ at lynch mobs pursuing payback,” it said.
The article mentions Sister Gaudentia Meier, a Swiss nun who tried to save Angela, a woman accused of witchcraft. The article includes powerful photos of accused “witches.”
Hearing the children shout that a witch was about to be cooked, Sister Gaudentia rushed after them. “Two days earlier, she had tried to rescue Angela (not her real name), an accused witch, when she was first seized by a gang of merciless inquisitors looking for someone to blame for the recent deaths of two young men.”
Angela was luckier than Ms. Leniata.
She had no male relatives to protect her (a common profile for accused “witches”) and was horribly tortured, but lived, the article says. A “sorcery survivor,” today she is in hiding with her small son.
“Those victims who lived to tell the tale owe their lives either to individual police members or to a strong church leader who intervened for them,” Father Gibbs told the Global Mail.
“In effect it means that, if sufficiently motivated to act, the power of the police and civil authorities, or the power of the church, can be enough to defend a person who is otherwise powerless,” he said.