Monday, April 20, 2009

The scourge of sorcery in Papua New Guinea

It is one of the greatest paradoxes that in this day and age, supposedly the ‘Computer Age’, Papua New Guineans are still living in the ‘Stone Age’.

A paradox too, when Papua New Guineans like to call ourselves “Christians”, however, cannot shake off the ancient and satanic obsession with sorcery.

Papua New Guinea cannot take its place in today’s modern world if this primitive belief continues.

The numerous sorcery-related killings in Papua New Guinea where innocent men, women and children are killed is even worse than the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, where the suspected witches were hanged.

Viewed by many to be the result of a period of factional infighting and religious hysteria, the witch trials of Puritanical Salem Village, Massachusetts, led to the executions of 20 people—15 women and five men—and the imprisonment of approximately 150 accused witches.

The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea in 2010 make the Salem witch trials look like something out of a child’s fairy tale story.

Here, suspected sorcerers – mainly old men and women – have their heads chopped off, are burned alive, tied to and dragged behind moving vehicles, tortured with hot metal rods, pushed off cliffs, drowned in rivers, shot, buried alive, and worse.

And yet, the silence of the government and the churches on this issue, has been deafening.

Papua New Guineans do not openly want to talk about sorcery with outsiders, however, the reality is that the belief is prevalent.

And it is getting worse by the day!

Just pick up a newspaper any day and you’ll find a shock-and-horror story of some gruesome sorcery-related killing.

I have had numerous experiences with beliefs in sorcery all over the country (but do not want to go into the details), and sad to say, many university-educated so-called “Christians” still hang on to this pagan belief.

Last Friday, The National reported of members of a clan living near Mt Hagen, Western Highlands province, admitting they were wrong to murder a father and his son whom they suspected of sorcery.

Members of the Moge Kimnika clan, peace mediators and relatives of the deceased met in Mt Hagen as members of the clan expressed remorse for last February’s killing of two of their own.

Plak Doa and his son Anis were attacked and tied up, placed inside their own house and burnt to death last Feb 8 at Ban village.

Clansmen had accused them for the death of community leader Pora Mel through sorcery.

Police said the clansmen had tied them up and burnt them because that was the only way to remove the “evil spirit” in them.

At the time, police were prevented from entering the village by heavily-armed men.

More than two months after the gruesome killing, the Moge Kimnika clansmen admitted they were wrong, and publicly apologised to the relatives of the deceased.

Police estimate that half of all murder cases in 2008 were sorcery-related.

Police spokesman Superintendent Dominic Kakas says police are voicing their support of any initiative to try to curb the rising number of sorcery-related murders in the country.

He says at the moment, sorcery-related killings are difficult to prove, under the country’s current British Common Law system.

“The number of killings related to sorcery is quite high,” Mr Kakas said.

“And in fact, last April, prompted the commissioner Gari Baki to actually initiate moves to bring about a collective effort towards addressing this issue.

“Now he made a number of suggestions perhaps one would be to look at a court specifically for sorcery and related issues.”

Supt Kakas says many people are superstitious in PNG, which also makes it difficult to collect evidence in such cases.

A lack of faith in Western medicine is also fuelling this resurgence in sorcery and witchcraft in PNG.

Age-old beliefs in black magic and evil curses are back with a vengeance in jungle-clad mountain valleys which were unknown to the outside world until the 1930s.

The revival is being fuelled by the spiralling HIV/AIDS crisis and the collapse of health services, sapping villagers’ faith in Western medicine.

Barely-educated villagers living in remote mountain valleys are blaming the increasing number of AIDS deaths not on promiscuity or a lack of condom use but on malign spirits.

A report by Amnesty International last September found there was a “conspiracy of silence” surrounding the murders.

 “The police do little to penetrate this silence. Very few sorcery-related deaths are investigated and the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice,” the report concluded.

Belief in magic is ubiquitous throughout Papua New Guinea, where more than 850 languages are spoken by 5.5 million people.

In the highlands they are known as sangumas and can assume the form not only of humans, but animals such as dogs, pigs, rats and snakes.

When Papua and New Guinea were separate Australian colonies, colonial patrol officers known as “kiaps” and their native auxiliaries suppressed sorcery killings.

 But since independence in 1975, the old ways have gradually undergone a gruesome renaissance along the spine of saw-toothed peaks which divides PNG in two.

And the frightening thing is that children are now witnessing these things, with the belief in sorcery and witchcraft being passed on to the next generation.

Authorities appear helpless to intervene although the Government has ordered a parliamentary commission to spend a year investigating ways to prevent witch-hunts, which arise from a tragic combination of tribalism, underdevelopment and superstition.

“When dozens of people have been killed, it's clear that the Government is not doing enough to protect its own citizens and maintain the rule of law,” said Apolosi Bose, of Amnesty International.

The objective existence of black magic is enshrined in Papua New Guinea's 1976 Sorcery Act, which permits white magic but punishes the black variety with up to two years in jail.

The country's police force is poorly-trained, poorly-resourced and riddled with corruption, so witch-hunters have a good chance of escaping punishment.

“People often don't trust the police or the judiciary and instead blame events on supernatural causes and punish suspected sorcerers,” Mr Bose said.

The Constitutional Review and  Law Reform Commission (CLRC) and the Public Prosecutor’s office have pointed out that there is no effective enforcement of the Sorcery Act 1991, resulting in a good number of people brutally murdered in sorcery-related cases.

Commission chairman Joe Mek Teine and acting public prosecutor Jack Pambel separately said there was a need to immediately review and amend the Act.

“Sorcery accusations and killings is a very serious issue facing our society, where innocent lives have been lost,” he said.

“Reviewing the Sorcery Act is on the agenda of my commission.”

He said sorcery-related killings were not serious in the colonial days, however, sorcery accusations and killings had become worse today.

“The situation warrants us to immediately make amendments to the Sorcery Act and implement it,” Mr Mek Teine said.

Mr Pambel said there was no effective implementation of the Sorcery Act.

“Whether the Act is being implemented or not is a question that has to be looked at,” he said.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked with former kiap, John Fowke, about the numerous social problems – including sorcery - facing PNG.

“Look at life and the future straight in the eye, and begin to keep pace with the rest of the world, PNG,” he said.

“Social history and ancient customs belong in the school curriculum, in museums and story-books, not in the management methodology of a modern nation.”


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