By JAMES GUMUNO
POLICE believe sorcery-related mass killings have been carried out in Southern Highlands after the bodies of two women and a man were found floating down Mendi River the past week.
Western End police commander Asst Comm (ACP) Kaiglo Ambane said more could have been executed and urged villagers to help keep a lookout for bodies floating downstream.
“We believe the three were killed in sorcery-related executions and their bodies thrown into the river upstream,” he added.
The body of a woman was found on the river bank near a service station on Dec 31.
The man was found on the river bank in Mopa Village five days later, last Saturday. The third body of a woman was recovered the next day.
ACP Ambane said police was finding it difficult to identify the bodies, now in Mendi Hospital’s mortuary, due to the decomposed state.
“We are waiting for relatives of the dead to come forward and identify them,” he added.
ACP Ambane said police believed the sorcery victims were killed in Karintz and the bodies were thrown into the river and carried downstream.
“We appeal to relatives to come forward and help police in investigations and to arrest the killers. Post-mortems had yet to be conducted because we are waiting for the relatives to help identify the dead,” he added.
According to a TIME report, the United Nations has estimated that there are 200 killings of “witches” in Papua New Guinea (PNG) annually, while local activists estimate up to 50,000 people have been chased from their homes due to sorcery accusations.
The victims are mostly vulnerable women – single mothers, widows, the infirm or mentally ill. But sanguma is so secretive, and communities so remote, that experts say the vast majority of incidences slip under the radar. “It is a really big problem,” University of PNG political science lecturer and former crime reporter Geejay Milli said.
“The media is not reporting on it enough,” Milli added.
According to an ABC report, aid workers said sorcery-related violence and murder was increasingly dividing families and claiming innocent lives across PNG. Once confined to small pockets of the country, sorcery-related violence is now far more widespread with both men and women accused of witchcraft being attacked and often killed.
Sorcery-related violence refers to attacks carried out on those accused of wielding supernatural powers or witchcraft to harm another person.
Helen Mark, who coordinates Oxfam’s gender justice programme in PNG, said the problem has only grown in the past four to five years.
“Previously we have not seen an increase. Sorcery-related violence was something that was dealt with at a community level and dealt among leaders,” she said, adding that sorcery accusations were also often used as a scapegoating tactic to target certain individuals.
Researcher Nicole George, writing in The Conversation in 2015, said studies of sorcery-related deaths showed accusations of witchcraft were usually levelled at those on the bottom of the social hierarchy, most often women who lived on the margins of society – the elderly, disabled, or those who had married into the village. In a 2015 report into gender-based violence in PNG, Human Rights Watch said “sorcery accusations all too often become a form of family violence, with abusive husbands … using sorcery accusations to silence and control women”.
Academics at the Divine Word University (DWU), PNG’s National Research Institute (PNGNRI), and the Australian National University (ANU), found that over the past 20 years, there was an average of 72 incidents of torture, and 30 deaths reported in local newspapers annually.
But one of the researchers, ANU’s Dr Miranda Forsyth, said police had only arrested and charged a small number of the perpetrators.
“We found that only about 15 per cent of cases that had been reported in the newspapers resulted in the trial of at least one suspect. Looking at all of those cases, about 15,000 perpetrators have been involved and of those only 115 individuals received sentences.,” Forsyth said.
Over the past 20 years, there has been an average of 30 deaths and 72 incidents of torture reported in local newspapers each year, according to a study by DWU, PNGNRI and ANU.