On a tropical island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) where most people live in huts, a mob armed with guns, machetes and axes stormed a wooden house by night. They seized Helen Rumbali and three female relatives, set the building on fire and took the women away to be tortured. Their alleged crime: witchcraft.
After being repeatedly slashed with knives, Rumbali’s older sister and two teenage nieces were released following negotiations with police. Rumbali, a 40-something former schoolteacher, was beheaded.
Her assailants claimed they had clear proof that Rumbali had used sorcery to kill another villager who recently died of sickness: The victim’s grave bore the marks of black magic and a swarm of fireflies apparently led witch hunters to Rumbali’s home.
Violence linked to witch hunts is an increasingly visible problem in PNG — a diverse tribal society of more than 800 languages and 7 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers.
Experts say witch hunting appears to be spreading to parts of the country where the ruthless practices never took place before.
There is no clear explanation for the apparent uptick in killings in parts of the South Pacific nation and even government officials seem at a loss to say why this is happening.
Some say that the recent violence is fueled not by the nation’s widespread belief in black magic but instead by economic jealousy born of a mining boom that has widened the country’s economic divide and pitted the haves against the have-nots.
“Jealousy is causing a lot of hatred,” said Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee, which is based in the area Rumbali was killed. “People who are so jealous of those who are doing well in life, they resort to what our people believe in — sorcery — to kill them, to stop them continuing their own development.”
She said the witchcraft accusation against Rumbali was just an excuse.
“That was definitely a case of jealousy because her family is really quite well-off,” Hakena said.
She said villagers were envious because Rumbali’s husband and son had government jobs, they had a “permanent house” made of wood, and the family had tertiary educations and high social standing.
The UN has documented hundreds of cases of sorcery-related violence in PNG in recent years and many more cases in remote areas are thought to have gone unreported. It found that the attacks are often carried out with impunity.
Until last month, the country’s 42-year-old Sorcery Act allowed for a belief in black magic to be used as a partial legal defense for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery.
The PNG government repealed the law in response to the recent violence.
“There’s no doubt that there are really genuine beliefs there and in some circumstances that is what is motivating people: the belief that if they don’t kill this person, then this person is going to continue to bring death and misfortune and sickness on their village,” said Miranda Forsyth, an Australian National University lawyer, who has studied the issue.
Yet she said recent cases in PNG do not appear to be motivated by a genuine belief in the occult, but instead are a pretext under which the wealthy can be attacked by poorer neighbors and, many times, get away with it.
She and other experts on witchcraft in the Melanesia region believe PNG’s newfound prosperity and the growing inequality in its traditionally egalitarian culture is a significant cause of the violence.