A gruesome video online shows the torture of four women accused of witchcraft and “invisibly” taking out a man’s heart and eating it in a village of Papua New Guinea.
The footage, reportedly taken in a village of the Enga province, shows four women who have been stripped, tied up, burned and beaten. Several men prod the women threateningly with machetes while hurling questions at them.
According to a local Lutheran missionary, Anton Lutz, the video was first shared by local high school students on their mobile phones before it appeared on social media.
Papua New Guinea has long struggled with sorcery-related violence and murder, but government efforts to end it have not resulted in a single conviction.
According to Human Rights Watch, violence against women in PNG “is rampant,” and often involves charges of sorcery. In February, 2013, a mob in Western Highlands Province accused 20-year-old Kepari Leniata of sorcery after a six-year-old child died in her city. The mob stripped her and burned her to death as a witch. Eight other women reportedly were victims of such attacks during the course of the year.
Ruth Kissam, an anti-sorcery-violence activist and youth coordinator for PNG’s Western Highlands provincial government, says that the time has come for the government to take decisive action.
“It is a national crisis and it calls for aggressive action by the government right now,” she said.
Last December the Catholic Bishop of Wabag, Arnold Orowae, launched a campaign against the persecution of so-called witches, threatening any Catholics who get involved in sorcery-related attacks with excommunication.
In an interview, Bishop Orowae expressed his disgust with people who call themselves Christians and yet spread dissension linking innocent persons to sorcery. He also said that the Catholic Church would fight against these witch hunters together with the police.
“The unethical and unlawful killing of women alleged to be witches must and will be stopped in 2015,” the bishop said.
The Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea published an open letter in the two major Papuan dailies, condemning the persecution of pseudo-witches.
In the most recent case, the four women were accused of witchcraft after a young man became ill and later died in a village in Enga province in August.
Reports on social media claim that the women were accused of “invisibly” taking out the man’s heart. Some have gone so far as to assert that the women put the heart back after they were tortured, so confirming their guilt.
“There’s no real way they can prove themselves innocent,” one local source told Guardian Australia. “Once they’re suspected they’re basically done for, they’ll be tortured and maybe killed as well.”
According to an online translation of the video, the women deny having done anything wrong, and plead for mercy. “My son, stop it!” says one of the women, cowering on the ground.
“Talk out, where did you put it?” replies the voice of one of her attackers, referring to the young man’s heart. “Burn her with the wire.”
“I’ve got nothing to do with it,” says another of the women. “I am a mother with five children.”
It is believed that at least one woman died after the ordeal, though the claim is unconfirmed.
One of the things that makes the video so disturbing is that the photographer apparently concurred in the torture. “It’s not police photos or anything of the crime being shared,” said the PNG source. “It’s actual participants who are there and actually bragging about what they’re doing. It’s kind of like a Abu Ghraib video or something.”
The source said that many people, including high school students, were sharing the video on their smartphones, and that they did so in approval of the actions being taken against the four women.
According to Samuel Basil, the PNG deputy opposition leader, entire communities were taking part in torturing suspected victims. “It’s very hard for police to act when whole community is involved, and there’s no witness to testify,” Basil said.
“We have a culture, a Melanesian culture, where some people very strongly believe in sorcery, including some very educated people. I do not believe in that but I’m sure I have very educated relatives who believe in sorcery,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome