Monday, December 19, 2011

Witch hunts on the rise in Papua New Guinea


Goroka, Papua New Guinea - After they had strung her up on a tree to die, her only hope was faith in God.
'I prayed a lot,' says Lisbeth Bulheg, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
The horror of that day, Easter Sunday 2011, remains etched in a face scarred by the deep notches carved out by her nephew. Her husband's family had accused her of witchcraft.
And in Papua New Guinea (PNG), an impoverished South Pacific island nation north of Australia, witches are tortured and killed.
'Three suspected sorcerers are dead after being held hostage and tortured,' the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported in October. Similar incidents occur every couple of days, and police say they are increasing.
Human rights groups estimate that several dozen alleged witches or sorcerers are murdered in PNG each year. Police are powerless, and the church is halfheartedly fighting a hopeless battle against the crimes.
The Post-Courier recently quoted Chief Superintendent Teddy Tei, provincial police commander of the Southern Highlands, as saying that investigations into sorcery-related crimes were very difficult because police lacked physical evidence to convict someone for practising sorcery.
'If you feel that you are possessed by evil spirits, then you better go to church so that the living God Almighty will cleanse you and purify you,' Tei remarked.
'Of course sorcery exists,' the head of a Lutheran church board says near Goroka. Even pastors accuse each other of sorcery.
The PNG Sorcery Act of 1971 distinguishes between 'evil sorcery,' which is punishable by up to two years in jail, and 'innocent sorcery,' which is allowed. In the words of Paul Gamen, a Sepic River tour guide, the former 'kills' while the latter 'heals.'
People go to practitioners of black magic when they have a bone to pick with someone, and to practitioners of white magic when they want to free themselves from a curse, are unhappy in love or ill.
In the village of Lirako in the Tari area of the Southern Highlands, a woman named Amy demonstrated 'good' sorcery. 'This is how you keep your husband in line,' she said with a grin.
She rolled some tree bark, powder, paste and a hair from her spouse into a leaf, then suddenly began hacking at it with a knife. 'I'm cutting into his brain, his belly, his arms so that he'll follow me forever like a lap dog,' explained Amy, who said the mixture would be smeared on the door frames and was sure to work.
In a bamboo hut in the village of Tokua, near Mount Hagen, the 'kurmunw' - which in the local language means 'the man who conjures spirits' - displayed his craft. He was sitting in front of a pot filled with 'holy' stones.
'Each one represents a different spirit,' the interpreter whispered. The kurmunw began to chant, and moved his hands over the pot. 'Reveal yourselves!' the kurmunw cried. 'Which spirit is responsible for our brother's illness?' He touched a stone. 'What! You want a pig as a sacrificial offering again? You come too often!'
'When there's a serious illnesses, people always ask who, not what, caused it. But believing in such forces is totally misguided,' says Jack Urame, director of the ecumenical Melanesian Institute, who has been studying the phenomenon for years.
The accused witch Lisbeth is about 40 years old - she does not know for sure. She was living in the highlands with her husband, when doctors diagnosed him with bone tuberculosis. His family suspected that Lisbeth had caused it, and forbade her from seeing him.
As the man lay dying, they struck. 'It was night and I couldn't sleep,' Lisbeth recalled. 'I looked at my mobile phone - it was 4 a.m.' There was a knock at the door of her hut. At the door stood a nephew with several of his cronies. The young men grabbed her.
'Three held me tight, and my nephew hacked at me with a knife,' she said. 'He drew the blade across my lips so that my mouth hung open. I hardly had anything on. They cut into my stomach and back, again and again. I passed out because of the pain. Then they put a rope around my neck and dragged me to a mango tree.'
Lisbeth no longer remembers how she finally managed to haul herself, with two broken arms and grievous wounds, to a church in a nearby village. A group of youths found her there and took her to a hospital. Her nephew is now in pre-trial detention.
'The government is not doing enough to protect its own citizens and maintain the rule of law,' Apolosi Bose, Amnesty International's Pacific Islands researcher, said in 2009. But nothing has been done.
About 85 per cent of Papua New Guinea's population of 6.5 million live in rural areas, from hand to mouth, in villages without electricity, without schools, without medical care. The country's vast mineral resources benefit only a tiny elite.
'People often tell me, 'We gave up our magical powers in exchange for the Gospels',' Urame said. ''We pray, but our lives are still miserable. Now we are remembering what our ancestors knew.''

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