PNG Stakeholders Discuss Sorcery Violence At Meeting

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Participants condemn attacks on women over alleged sorcery

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio New Zealand International, Dec. 12, 2013) – Papua New Guinea’s government appears set on ridding the country of sorcery beliefs in a bid to prevent the violence with which they’ve become synonymous.

Representatives of government, church, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academia met last week in the Eastern Highlands provincial capital Goroka to discuss the growing number of attacks and murders related to sorcery accusations - and how to stop them.

Annell Husband filed this report.

"(DINI KORUL THROUGH TRANSLATOR) I feel really bad when I see those perpetrators because we live in the same village and as they walk past to and from, like, I feel really bad seeing them, it reminds me of the incidents that I went through but there’s no other way that I could, there’s no other places that I could go to, so I just don’t have any hope. So I continue to stay. But in my heart I really want to leave this place because I’ve been traumatised all the time."

Dini Korul is from Simbu Province, one of the regions most known for sorcery-related violence. The 54-year-old was attacked by young male members of her own family who suspected her of having used black magic or sanguma to cause the death of her son. Her injuries were so severe that she lost her womb and a kidney - and is now unable to work. Such trauma is far from uncommon in the experience of her doctor, the chief surgeon at the province’s Kundiawa Hospital. Jan Jaworski has been treating sanguma trauma since 1985.

"JAN JAWORSKI: The people are living under psychological terror, under permanent fear that next day or next night it would happen that they will be accused of sanguma and tortured and killed. So it’s a great outcry of local people on the grassroots level to help them, to bring justice to it, to save them from this kind of psychological terror, I would say."

Belief in sorcery in PNG has existed as long as the people themselves. It is used to make crops grow, to catch fish, bring rain, business prosperity and even to win elections. But in times past those accused of practising it to cause illness or death were killed discreetly, often by kin at night. These killings were typically swift, such as the victim being pushed off a cliff or drowned. What’s changed is that people - and especially women - are being publicly executed after prolonged torture, often highly sexualised in nature. Regina Arre was accused of removing a man’s heart and burying it behind her house. Her husband saved her from being burned alive. But torture with a hot iron rod has left the 24-year-old dependent on a colostomy bag.

"REGINA ARRE: These suspects made me feel bad, so I would like to put it to the public so the government can look forward...today I’m still on my medical, I’m with a medical treatment, like, I cannot excrete through my anus, I excrete through my side because of the suspects, they put the iron into my anus."

But Regina Arre and Dini Korul are - if you can call it that - the lucky ones. Accusations of sorcery cost Kepari Leniata and Helen Rumbali their lives - Mrs Leniata by fire at Mt Hagen in Western Highlands province and Mrs Rumbali on Bougainville through beheading. Those murders sparked international outrage via social media and a senior research fellow with the Australian National University’s State Society and Governance in Melanesia Programme says the government must address the development issues behind the violence. Richard Eves says that means sitting down and talking to people in a serious way.

"RICHARD EVES: The reported cases are really actually the tip of the iceberg and I think there’s a lot that’s gone on out in the communities that isn’t reported. It really is doing profound reputational damage to the government of Papua New Guinea if they refuse to actually deal with this issue in a serious manner."

Dr Eves was among a number of conference delegates who criticised the government’s reintroduction of the death penalty. Mary Kini is a member of the Highlands Human Rights Defenders Network, which helps protect and relocate survivors of sorcery-related brutality. She says the legislation may make it even more difficult to bring women’s attackers to justice.

"MARY KINI: They need to listen to the - you know, like the NGOs and the churches and the CBOs on the ground because they’re everyday walking around in the community and they know whereabouts the event or the problems on the ground so it’s nothing you can take out of blue and you can make the legislative up there."

The interim president of the PNG Civil Society Forum agrees there’s no easy answer - and it’s certainly not the death penalty. Susan Setae says aside from its devastating consequences for victims, belief in sanguma is hindering PNG’s development.

"SUSAN SETAE: There is no place for sorcery, there is no place because a lot of our development is actually deterred by this belief, this fear. People can’t go into businesses. People are afraid: ’If I go into business, the sorcerer will kill me’. Or people can’t build new houses because they say, ’If I put up a new house, I will get killed.’"

In theory, the police and village court system play a critical part in dealing with the violence associated with accusations of sorcery. But in a society where everyone believes in it - from the most educated to those who have never been to school - conference delegates heard how often police and court officials side with the accusers. Most cases go unprosecuted - even when the perpetrators confess to murder or torture. Survivors live in fear of further attacks. The secretary to the department of justice and attorney general, Lawrence Kalinoe, says that’s why the government has brought back the death penalty - meeting violence with violence.

"LAWRENCE KALINOE: We’re still a tribal nation in transition. Violence is really - has been our mainstay of our survival. And that thinking and that perception is still there, to the extent that if you don’t react to a violent situation in a similar fashion, that is seen as in fact an invitation, a weakness invitation."

Dr Kalinoe says the government will implement any policy recommendations to come out of the conference but of sorcery - ’hem finis taem before.’

"LAWRENCE KALINOE: Some of these bad customs like sorcery have been maintained in the pretext that it’s part of our cultural heritage. It is for that reason I said, ‘Enough of this nonsense.’ I think we need to move on. Papua New Guinea is now much more enlightened than it was."

A Goroka health worker denies that people make themselves believe in sorcery and witchcraft. Richard Kavare is a human rights officer with Laity Mobile Health Services, which flies vaccines and other essential medical supplies and services into remote areas. He says he’s seen for himself sorcerers’ immunity from harm.

"RICHARD KAVARE: If you push a knife through a witch, it won’t even hurt the witch. It will just bounce as though the knife is blunt. If you put an hot rod of iron into the witch body it won’t even have any impact. It will just come out cold, freeze."

But the director of the Melanesian Institute, Jack Urame, sees a need to educate people not to believe in sanguma and blames a lack of development for the increase in atrocities related to it. He says rural people are cut off from markets and services and lack hope.

"JACK URAME: Where there is lack of development people resort to alternatives and normally they go back to their traditional belief systems to find alternatives . People are now changing and living a modern lifestyle in towns and cities, on the other side you see people living tradition - there is no balance. There is no balance."

But the vice-chancellor of the University of Goroka, Gairo Onagi, says sorcery is embedded within PNG culture and cannot be taken away. He believes tackling a spiritual matter in the physical realm is ultimately futile.

"GAIRO ONAGI: Personally I think it is a spiritual matter and the churches must rally behind this because I have witnessed myself that the churches have that spiritual sense to do something about it. Only then the law can support the spiritual method in which it can be dealt with, we can see some good, tangible results."

However, much of the discussion at the conference emphasised the importance of mediation and communities coming up with their own solutions to stopping the violence. A former Bougainville parliamentary speaker, Francesca Semoso, says every individual - including politicians - must show leadership.

"FRANCESCA SEMOSO: So, let me bring it down to the village level , that’s where all this is happening. In every family there is a leader. That is a father and a mother. At the local level government in the villages we’ve got leaders - we’ve got leadership in the churches, in the women’s groups, in the youth groups as well. So, these are leaders in the village that should be able to actually stand up collectively and say, ’We can’t let that happen.’"

Francesca Semoso says unless people put aside fear of personal repercussions and publicly condemn the attacks, they will not stop.

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