Witch hunts, murder and evil in Papua New Guinea

Friday 08 May 2009

Nearly all the residents of Koge watched as Julianna Gene and Kopaku Konia were dragged from their homes, to be hung from trees and tortured for several hours with bush knives. No one came forward to help. In the eyes of the villagers, the women were witches. They deserved to die.

"They used their powers to bewitch a man to death," said Kingsley Sinemane, a community leader. "We had to get rid of them, as they could have killed others. We had to protect our village."

The finger of suspicion fell on the women after a local man died in a car accident. The only sign now of the horror that unfolded in this remote Papua New Guinea village is a black, charred clearing where some dozen homes once stood. Fear of the supernatural and the stigma of being branded a witch is so great that around 30 of the victims' relatives were chased out of the village. Upturned shoes and a few bundles of clothes are all that remain of their former lives. Most of them had nowhere to flee to, as word had spread they were related to so-called witches. They are now forced to live in slums in the nearest town.

A shocking increase in witch-hunt deaths in Papua New Guinea has prompted the government to launch a parliamentary commission of inquiry with a view to toughening the law. Joe Mek Teine, the chairman of the nation's law reform commission, has publicly declared that sorcery killings are "getting out of hand". Most witch hunts happen in the Highlands, the remote mountainous interior wracked by centuries of tribal wars and blood feuds. Contact with the outside world was only established in the 1930s, when some of the many ethnic groups were still living stone-age existences. Although there are no official statistics on sorcery killings, more than 50 were reported to the police in just two Highland provinces last year.

The homicide squad at Kundiawa police station in Simbu, a steep, rugged province believed to be the epicentre of the witch hunts, is struggling to cope with the surge in murders. Detective Inspector Blacky Koglame estimates there are up to 20 killings a month in this area alone, most of which are not reported. Witchcraft is a secretive and taboo subject, so people are often too scared to come forward.

A worrying new development is that the crime, which has historically been a rural phenomenon, is now spreading to urban areas as families are driven out of villages by poverty and tribal fighting, and into towns and cities. Mount Hagen, the largest city in the Highlands, has recently been rocked by a wave of witch killings, and there have even been cases reported in the capital, Port Moresby.

Belief in black magic is so ingrained that the government legally recognises sorcery, under the 1976 Sorcery Act. It permits white magic (healing or fertility rites for example) but the so-called black arts are punishable by up to two years in jail. This has resulted in murderers alleging the use of black magic as provocation and securing reduced sentences.

Branding someone a witch is a crime, but Detective Koglame estimates that fewer than 1 per cent of cases end up in court. Even when witnesses do come forward, he admits the police simply do not have the resources to investigate.

"Sometimes we have to borrow pens and paper from complainants in order to file our reports, and we can't always get to crime scenes as we don't have enough petrol money for the police cars," Det Koglame said. "And anyway, arresting people is very hard. Everyone in the community is usually involved, so you can't just go in looking for suspects, as you'd have to arrest the whole village, and that's impossible."

Those accused of sorcery are sometimes tried in local kangaroo courts, with tribesmen and village councils handing out death sentences. The killings are mostly committed by groups of men who first torture so-called witches to make them "confess" to their crimes and force them to name other "witches". Some villages even have groups of vigilante killers who will strike as soon as a suspect is named.

In one area deep in the Highlands a team of eight "witch hunters" claim to have tortured and killed 18 people between them. "Mostly a witch hunter just collects information from any village where there is a problem, and then we go in and collect those people who are suspected of being witches," said the leader of the group, a man with a reputation as a violent local gangster who refused to be named. "It is part of my culture, my tradition, it's my belief. I see myself as a guardian angel. We feel that we kill on good grounds and we're working for the good of the people in the village," he said. Witch hunts nearly always occur after a death or an illness of a community member. "Natural causes for death or illness are just not accepted," said Pastor Jack Urame, a researcher at the Melanesian Institute and one of the country's leading experts on sorcery killings. "So whenever someone dies in a village, a person must blamed," he said. According to Mr Urame the victims are typically older women or women on their own, who have no extended family to defend them. Witch hunts can also be used as a pretext to settle scores or land disputes he said.

Umame Gamano survived a witch hunt after she was accused of causing her husband's death. One of her daughters helped her to escape a baying mob armed with bush knives after she had been hauled before a community gathering at which villagers urged her to confess to being a witch. Ms Umame fled the village, leaving her children behind and has not seen them since the attack that happened over a year ago. Her attackers were her own relatives and have threatened to kill her children if they visit her.

"I don't know why they think I'm a witch and I don't understand why they think I killed my husband," she said. "I loved him so much."

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Women told: 'You have dishonoured your family, please kill yourself'


Friday 27 March 2009

When Elif's father told her she had to kill herself in order to spare him from a prison sentence for her murder, she considered it long and hard. "I loved my father so much, I was ready to commit suicide for him even though I hadn't done anything wrong," the 18-year-old said. "But I just couldn't go through with it. I love life too much."

All Elif had done was simply decline the offer of an arranged marriage with an older man, telling her parents she wanted to continue her education. That act of disobedience was seen as bringing dishonour on her whole family - a crime punishable by death. "I managed to escape. When I was at school, a few girls I knew were killed by their families in the name of honour - one of them for simply receiving a text message from a boy," Elif said.

So-called "honour killings" in Turkey have reached record levels. According to government figures, there are more than 200 a year - half of all the murders committed in the country. Now, in a sinister twist, comes the emergence of "honour suicides". The growing phenomenon has been linked to reforms to Turkey's penal code in 2005. That introduced mandatory life sentences for honour killers, whereas in the past, killers could receive a reduced sentence claiming provocation. Soon after the law was passed, the numbers of female suicides started to rocket.

Elif has spent the past eight months on the run, living in hiding and in fear. Her uncles and other relatives are looking to hunt her down, for dishonour is seen as a stain that can only be cleansed by death. One of the women's shelters where Elif has stayed has been raided by armed family members.

Elif is from Batman, a grey, bleak town in the south-east of Turkey nicknamed "Suicide City". Three quarters of all suicides here are committed by women - nearly everywhere else in the world, men are three times more likely to kill themselves. "I think most of these suicide cases are forced. There are just too many of them, it's too suspicious. But they're almost impossible to investigate," said Mustafa Peker, Batman's chief prosecutor.

Wearing tight clothes or talking to a man who is not a relative is sometimes all it takes to blacken the family name. Mr Peker said women who are told to kill themselves are usually given one of three options - a noose, a gun or rat poison. They are then locked in a room until the job is done.

A woman's fate is usually decided during a "family council", when the extended family meets to discuss breaches of honour. In these meetings, it is agreed how the victim must be killed. If it is not to be a forced suicide, a killer is chosen. The youngest member of the family is often ordered to kill, in the belief they will be treated more leniently if caught.

Mehmet was 17 when he was handed a gun and told he would have to kill his stepmother and her lover. "I didn't want to do it. I was so young and so scared," he said. Mehmet ran away, but his family tracked him down and warned him his own life would be in danger if he refused to kill.

He shot dead his stepmother's lover, but his stepmother survived the attack. He was given a two-and-a-half- year prison sentence.

"There were many other 'honour killers' in prison and we were treated with respect, even by the prison guards," Mehmet said.

Most honour killings happen in the Kurdish region, a barren land ravaged by years of war and oppression. Rural communities here are ruled under a strict feudal, patriarchal system. But as Kurds have fled the fighting between separatist rebels and Turkey's government, the crime is spreading across the country into its cities and towns. According to a recent government report, there is now one honour killing a week in Istanbul.

"Families who move here are suddenly faced with modern, secular Turkey," said Vildan Yirmibesoglu, the head of Istanbul's department of human rights. "This clash of cultures is making the situation worse as the pressure on women to behave conservatively is become more acute. And of course there are more temptations."

Ms Yirmibesoglu believes that the entrenched belief in the notion of honour - at all levels of society - is impeding any progress. "Honour killings aren't always properly investigated because some police and prosecutors share the same views as the honour killers," she said. "For things to change, police, prosecutors and even judges need to be educated on gender equality."

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