PNG sorcery-related killings described as 'silent epidemic'
An Australian academic is describing sorcery-related killings as almost a silent epidemic.
An Australian academic says sorcery-related killings in Papua New Guinea are still largely hidden.
The comment follows a conference in Goroka on how to stop a rising number of attacks on people accused of sorcery.
A senior research fellow at the Australian National University says the violence is spreading to areas where it has not been a traditional part of the culture and much of the time it is escaping the notice of the authorities.
The government has reintroduced the death penalty to deter people from taking the law into their own hands, a move Richard Eves describes as quick policy based on the wrong decision.
He told Annell Husband about his interviews with Eastern Highlands men who admit to attacking women over sorcery.
RICHARD EVES: Two of the perpetrators that I interviewed are no longer engaged in these things. The first one, he basically stopped when his family came and talked to him and counselled him about getting out of this lifestyle. The second one, who was involved in the incident back in the late '90s where five accusations and tortures and about 20 women killed, he no longer does it. And he was explaining it in terms of back then there was no law and order, but now there's a much stronger law and order situation. But when I asked him if he was sorry about what he'd done he was unrepentant. He said that the witches deserved to die and he went into a long diatribe about how the government was protecting witches and not the community. So he firmly believed that he was right in what he was doing.
ANNELL HUSBAND: And what you mentioned about the quick solution?
RE: Some of the people I'm talking to haven't even heard there is a death penalty. Of the 16 accounts that I've collected so far there have been prosecutions in relation to one. That was an act which involved nine people who killed five women, chopped a number of them up and put them into bags and threw them into a river. The six perpetrators who were actually arrested spent 2.5 years in jail, so the police aren't finding out about these things, they're hidden, they're out in the communities. That's why I say it's almost a silent epidemic. So in a sense the government's 'policy on the run' decision about the death penalty is quite irrelevant, really. Simple solutions like that are never going to work.
AH: And, as you say, with so much of the population in rural areas and many often remote, how are they going to find out about this?
RE: Exactly. I think what'll happen is the communities will close down even further. And in terms of the attacks that I've researched and found out about, there tends to be two types. There tends to be one type where there is community complicity in it, and there's another type where the perpetrators actually come into the community totally disguised. They blacken their faces with burnt tyre rubber. They put masks across. They actually wear different clothes, which they then burn afterwards. They try to obliterate their identity so they can't be seen. So in those cases how do they identify the perpetrators? And we'll see more closed-down communities who build a wall around themselves in relation to these acts. I think it's also meant to terrorise, but there are ideas behind there that they do not want the witch to see them, because if the witch survives the spirit will go after them. That's why, for example, in some of the photos that you see where women are actually blindfolded, it's so that she can't see who's there. So if she survives the witch will go and attack them. There's reasons behind some of these things.
AH: It sounds to me like really in-depth anthropological research needs to be drawn on before solutions are come up with.
RE: I think so. It came out at the conference that there needs to be a clear mapping because there are differences in how it's been manifest, who the victims are, who the perpetrators are in different contexts. And I think from a week of intensive research here, I'm seeing a lot more nuances to the situation than I previously understood. There is quite a lot of anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea, but I think there needs to be more work in mapping out what the specific manifestations are, both in terms of who the victims are, who the perpetrators are and what are the beliefs behind them, both in the urban and rural context. Some of these things are happening in urban centres, as well. A number of cases I've come across have actually happened in Goroka town. There was a recent case this year were five women were strung up at the main market in Goroka and tortured. That was in March, April this year. So these things are happening both in the urban centres and in the rural communities, so it's quite a complex situation that really does need some close, detailed research. It should be research that's geared towards developing some prevention and some community justice solutions to the problem.
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