Sorcery accusations in PNG can quickly spiral into a life-threatening attack, but this safe house offers victims a lifeline

Sorcery accusations in PNG can quickly spiral into a life-threatening attack, but this safe house offers victims a lifeline
  • PublishedApril 14, 2024

The events before and after someone is accused of practising sorcery are often described as unfolding like a bushfire.

In many villages and communities in Papua New Guinea, the dry tinder is often the widespread belief that misfortune or bad events can be caused by the supernatural.

Several years ago, in the remote village of Wanikipa in Hela Province, the drowning of a young boy in the river served as the spark.

The boy’s father fanned the flames by accusing Elli Mark, a distant relative, of killing the boy through sorcery, or sanguma.

Elli can still clearly recall the day the bushfire came for her.

“Four men walked past our flower garden and entered my yard,” she said.

“I called out to God, and I said they will destroy my life.”

The men accused the young mother of being a sanguma and she was led away to a nearby tree, pushed up against it and attacked.

“They cut me on my head and the cut was deep, blood came rushing out,” she said.

“I tried to block a bush knife and two of my fingers were chopped off in the process.”

Eventually, the men walked away, leaving her to die.

But though she had lost a lot of blood, she clung on to life and was flown to Tari hospital days later.

Elli now lives in Tari — the provincial capital of Hela, which is 100 kilometres away from her former home — with a hooded jumper concealing her dismembered hand.

A close-up of Elli holding her right arm, which is missing a hand after the attack
Elli Mark’s hand was cut during the attack in her village.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

While she survived her ordeal and found a safe haven, others accused of sorcery have struggled to escape.

In an effort to improve the lives of those impacted by sorcery accusation-related violence (SARV), locals are banding together to offer victims emergency accommodation and an economic lifeline.

The origins of sorcery accusations

In PNG, some communities believe humans can be possessed by a spirit, transforming them into sangumas that feed off the hearts of others, academics say.

Accusations of sorcery usually follow a sudden or unexplained death, with a grieving family member or relative looking for someone to blame, particularly if their loved one died from an illness or disease that hasn’t been understood by the community.

Those accused of being a sanguma are sometimes brutally murdered, tortured, burned or suffer other horrific consequences.

A close up of a clothing line with tops and fabric hanging on it in a garden.
Experts say a lack of education can be part of the problem in sorcery related accusations.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

Peace-builder James Komengi, who works extensively in preventing SARV, said the key issue is a lack of education in areas far from government services.

“People are blaming [sorcery] when someone dies from malaria, when someone is washed away in the river, when a landslide causes a house to collapse,” he said.

“Someone is blamed and murdered.”

The scale of SARV in PNG is difficult to quantify, with little reliable data available on the number of attacks or killings of those accused of practising sorcery.

In a submission to a PNG special parliamentary committee, leading Australian National University researcher Miranda Forsyth and others estimated 3,000 people were killed through SARV in the country from 2000 to 2020.

However, they acknowledged this figure was not conclusive.

Those researchers say women are more likely to be burnt and tortured in SARV.

Professor Forsyth, who has been working on SARV in PNG for more than a decade, said SARV required the urgent attention of the PNG and Australian governments.

“One of the concerning trends at the moment I’m seeing with regard to SARV is the way these particular narratives are spreading into new geographic areas,” she said.

“When a new narrative comes in then people are very afraid because they don’t know how to respond to it.

“It’s like a population that hasn’t been inoculated and so the chances of responding in a violent way are much more real.”

Milai Malongo was pregnant when she was accused by her husband and in-laws of being a sanguma.

She says they also claimed her unborn child practised sorcery and repeatedly chased her out of their village and into nearby mountains.

A close up of the side of a woman's face as she stares ahead on a sunny day.
Milai Malongo now lives in a home with her daughter on a small plot.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)
A Black woman wearing a green dress and brown jacket sits at the entrance to a safe house.
Milai Malongo was forced to seek refuge at a safe house after her husband and in-laws accused her of being a sanguma.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

“I would run away and cross big rivers,” she said.

“They had shot a spear through me and half the spear was left inside my body.”

Milai had no choice but to live in the mountains and says she felt worried and suffered from suicidal thoughts.

She eventually came to a church gathering near Tari and met an older woman who took her in as a daughter.

Milai now lives in a tiny thatched home with her daughter on a small plot and survives on the limited food she can grow.

But with SARV continuing in PNG, services are struggling to cater for the number of victims seeking refuge.

‘The biggest challenge is how can we get these guys’

In Tari, law enforcement and health officials say they are being confronted with more SARV cases than they are used to, and fear that belief in sorcery is spreading closer to village centres.

Already police resources are stretched to their limit when it comes to protecting women and children.

In a demountable next to Tari Police Station, RPNGC Family and Sexual Violence Unit Sergeant Alice Arigo bounces the child of a woman on one knee while taking her statement on the domestic violence she has suffered.

The woman, whose name is not being revealed to protect her identity, sits across from her, lifting up her clothes to reveal scars and bruises.

A close up of a person with bandages on their back and arm sitting on an office floor.
A  woman shows a police officer her scars and bruises.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)
A person points to a wrapping around their ankle.
Those accused of sorcery have told police about receiving marks and scars.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

She needs medical attention, so Sergeant Arigo helps her out of the office with the child and drives them to the nearby hospital.

“There’s no support, there’s no safe house here. So a lot of women just go back to their homes, where they’re being abused,” said Sergeant Arigo.

Sergeant Arigo said she is seeing more and more women seeking support after being accused of practising sorcery in nearby communities and suffering serious harm.

“There were a few cases where I kept [women] with me and after several months I have to send them back, but not to the village,” she said.

“There was one I had to send her back and I heard later she was murdered.”

But she feels that most women who survive don’t come forward to report their experiences.

“A lot of women don’t come out … they don’t have any way to come out, they’ve been so isolated,” she said.

A close up of a woman holding a child on her lap surrounded by smiling women and children.
Many of those who have fled to the safe house were forced to leave their villages because of sorcery accusations.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)
A smiling woman looks down at a child resting in her lap.
Accusations of sorcery usually follow a sudden or unexplained death.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

While she wants to take a more proactive role in arresting perpetrators of SARV, she said she doesn’t have the support to do so.

“There is enough evidence, the biggest challenge is how can we get these guys?” she said.

“We need logistical support … resources. I’m just one [person] sitting here.”

The safe house offering victims a lifeline

Mr Komengi has been helping to build safe houses for women, children and men accused of sorcery in Wanikipa.

Nearby there are large plots for people to grow crops to eat and earn an income.

A line of women and children stand and sit in front of a hut with a straw roof, which is surrounded by trees.
Safe houses like this one in Wanikipa offer refuge to women, children and men accused of sorcery.(Supplied: Michael Main)
A birds-eye view of a green landscape dotted with trees, patches of dirt and small houses.
The safe houses are located near large plots to grow crops to eat and earn an income.(Supplied: Michael Main)

It’s all part of Mr Komengi’s broader plan to help communities stamp out misinformation about sudden deaths and end the scourge of SARV.

“There was no activity to challenge the Sorcery Accusation Related Violence that is buried in those regions,” he said.

“There are safe houses that are built, which are taking care of victims who are running away, but without an ongoing effort in the hotspot communities, people continue to die.”

Mr Komengi said he ran a workshop on SARV and learnt that communities needed more education to dispel their sorcery beliefs.

“We’ve had young men come out and say ‘I was mistaken to think my mother was a sanguma, I have learned now to protect my mother,'” he said.

Sister Clare Lembo, who coordinates a Family Services Centre for the Provincial Health Authority, has seen first-hand how SARV can destroy people’s lives.

She helped look after Elli and invited the young mother to stay in her home after she was released from hospital.

But Sister Clare admits she struggled with the decision because of the stigma and belief in sorcery in the community.

“Now, I use her as an example to the community,” Sister Lembo said.

“I talk about her experience because there are a lot of mothers who are traumatised and going through the same pain that you have gone through.”

From a church in town, she uses her training as a mental health nurse to run awareness campaigns fighting sorcery beliefs.

A close up of a woman wearing a rainbow coloured dress standing in front of a church labelled Tari community centre.
Some people fleeing accusations have sought out churches.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

“SARV is hidden, it’s not being addressed. Culturally it’s a very sensitive issue,” she said.

“People need to be educated first, it’s just a belief. They have not seen a person kill another, it’s just a belief that tricks their mindset.”

Two years ago, a Special Parliamentary Committee on Gender-Based Violence in PNG made six recommendations relating to SARV, including training for prosecution and funding for education programs.

It also called for emergency funding for safe-houses and long-term reintegration into communities.

For many of those who have fled SARV, reintegration back into their communities is front of mind.

But it is extremely difficult to navigate with complex cultural practices relating to compensation and reconciliation.

A few years ago, Elli tried to return to her community with people that were looking after her, so that she could be reunited with her young son.

She said that the perpetrators didn’t want to reconcile, and she was advised to return to Tari.

“I told my family, I will return to Tari,” she said.

“My little son was standing there, but he was afraid to come closer to me because of my arm.

“That time when I was assaulted, I thought of my son, and I cried. I thought about who will look after my son.

“I told my smaller brother, you have your children but look after my child too.”

A woman wearing a purple beanie and yellow jumper holds her hands out.
Elli Mark says victims of sorcery accusations face stigma in their communities.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)


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