Sunday, February 17, 2013

PNG struggling with sorcery killings

Liam Fox reported this story on Sunday, February 17, 2013 07:21:00

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Papua New Guinea hardly ever features in the newspapers, broadcasts and websites of the world's big media organisations.
When it does it usually means that something terrible has happened, and that was the case earlier this month.

The story of a young woman who was burnt alive after being accused of being a witch sent shockwaves of horror and disgust around the globe.

In the past, Papua New Guineans have reacted angrily to such stories, saying they perpetuate the poor reputation of their country.

Here's our PNG correspondent Liam Fox.

LIAM FOX: It's pretty rare that different newspapers have exactly the same front-page headline.
But on the Thursday before last, both of PNG's daily papers screamed "Burned Alive".

The photographs accompanying the headlines were slightly different but showed the same scene. A crowed watched as tyres burn on a pile of rubbish beside the main street in Mt Hagen, the biggest town in PNG's rugged highlands region.

Burning rubbish is a common sight but what the photographs did not show was that underneath the tyres was the body of a 20-year-old woman. She'd been tied up, stripped naked, doused with petrol and set alight.
The local reports said the woman, identified as Kapari Leniata, was murdered after being accused of using sorcery, or black magic, to kill a young boy.

The boy died in hospital a few days earlier and, as is common in PNG when the cause of death is not easily apparent, his relatives suspected sorcery.

So they engaged a witch doctor, or glassman, as their called, to identify those responsible.

The witch doctor fingered Ms Leniata and two other elderly women, who were promptly rounded up and tortured with hot metal rods.

Locals told the newspapers the elderly women confessed that it was Ms Leniata who had taken the child's heart.

That was good enough for the boy's relatives who tied her up and burnt her alive.

Only two foreign media organisations have a presence in PNG, and once the ABC and the Australian Associated Press reported the incident, the story exploded. It went everywhere. Nearly every major news outlet on the planet ran it.

In the past, Papua New Guineans have reacted angrily to such stories. Every time a foreign journalist writes about sorcery killings or cannibals, people complain they're being stereotyped as savages living in a violent, lawless land.

But there was little complaining this time. Many locals were just as shocked, just as disgusted as people who were reading the story in Sydney or London.

On Papua New Guinea's biggest Facebook discussion group, Sharp Talk, one person wrote, "Oh my God. And we claim to be a Christian country. What happened to the Christian faith?" Another commented on the crowd that watched the woman burn: "I find this deeply troubling. How can people watch while this is going on? Where is the rule of law?"

In its editorial, the Post-Courier newspaper asked "whether we should be proud of ourselves as a nation".

This was a particularly disturbing example, but sorcery killings are common in PNG, especially in rural and remote areas.

The victims are mostly elderly women. They're easy targets for people looking to blame someone for a death or a misfortune they cannot easily explain.

Belief in sorcery, or sanguma as it's known, is pervasive. Even well-educated, self-declared Christians will tell you in hushed tones that black magic is real.

The brutal murder of the young woman has got the country thinking about the causes of sorcery killings and how to stop them.

Among the suggestions are economic development, legislative changes, and better-equipped police. All of which will take time.

And apart from recent messages of condemnation, it's still not clear that PNG's political leaders are prepared to meaningfully tackle the issue.

In the meantime, sorcery killings will continue and more women will die.

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