TIME: Season of the Witch [Witchhunts in Papua New Guinea]

In Papua New Guinea's highlands, misfortune is often blamed on magic - and the killing of alleged sorcerers is on the rise


Joe Jomani has not killed a witch for four years, but he knows there are more out there. Like the rest of his village in Papua New Guinea's Eastern Highlands province, he lives daily with the specter of witchcraft, carefully disposing of food scraps and collecting his cut hair and nails for fear they might be used in sorcery against him. Jomani is a married man with children, a practicing Christian and a respected member of his community. But he believes witches, or sangumas, are everywhere. Dressed in brown slacks and a worn North Sydney rugby league jersey, he sits cross-legged on the grass outside his thatched stilt home and talks candidly of murder. He reminisces about the night he and other men from the tiny hamlet of Mondo One-less than an hour's drive west of Goroka, the provincial capital -butchered four women they believed were sangumas. They were neighbors whose families Jomani knew well, yet he speaks of the murders as if he's discussing a chore as mundane as weeding his gardens.

Sometime in 1997, Jomani and fellow villagers hauled the women from their homes and questioned them about deaths in the village, including that of an 18-year-old youth whose brain the men believed had been replaced with water by a sanguma. In villages where belief in witchcraft lingers, such interrogations are brutal: hot metal may be applied to genitals, flesh incised with machetes, or the accused strung up by an arm or leg. In the end, the Mondo One women were killed: three with homemade shotguns, the fourth with knives, because the men ran out of bullets. Jomani says the women had all confessed to being sangumas. Asked why they would do that, he replies coolly: "Because we stab them until they do." And if they hadn't admitted to sorcery? "We stab them anyway."

Jomani's village is not unique. Yauwe Riyong, an M.P. from nearby Chuave district, in Simbu province, told Parliament last December that as many as 15 women had been "chopped to pieces" as suspected sangumas. He said similar killings had taken place in other highlands areas and in P.N.G.'s capital, Port Moresby. Police Minister Gabia Gagarimabu asked for details of the alleged incidents, but said there was little his officers could do.

Two months before Riyong's speech, a band of tribesmen attacked a remote village in Simbu's Gumine district, burning houses, wounding residents and killing three men suspected of sorcery. Police deputy commissioner Sam Inguba says that when officers went to investigate two days later, they were shot at and a skirmish erupted, leaving one man dead. Chief Superintendent Simon Kauba, who is investigating the most recent sanguma killing-which took place in Simbu just two weeks ago-says few killers are caught and even fewer convicted. "During an investigation the whole village refuses to cooperate," he says. "Either no one will provide statements or the entire village will claim they participated in the killing."

Blaming witchcraft for unexplained events is common in rural P.N.G. "Just let your mind wander," says Jim Tanner, a missionary who spent almost three decades in a highlands village and is now an administrator for the U.S.-based New Tribes Mission. "Consider what you would think if you had no scientific knowledge and someone suddenly died. I tried to tell people about germs-tiny things you can't see which cause harm-and they thought I must have some kind of white magic to see them." Says Chief Superintendent Kauba: "If a person dies, villagers believe somebody should be held responsible. They accuse someone of sorcery and the whole village decides what should happen to them."

In the early 1980s, American anthropologist Bruce M. Knauft studied the lowlands village of Gebusi, in Western province. He recorded "inquests" conducted through spirit mediums, and the belief that the presence of a witch among villagers paying their respects to the dead caused a corpse to gurgle or split open (though these are natural stages in decomposition). "It can be said Gebusi [people] attribute all natural death to some form of human agency," Knauft wrote in 1985. "The resulting sorcery attributions lead to an extremely high rate of killing." Tracing family histories over 42 years to 1982, Knauft found that almost 1 in 3 adult deaths were homicides; of these, he estimated, 86% were related to sorcery. Villagers who were female, elderly, or had few relatives ran the greatest risk of being murdered as witches.

These patterns are not universal; in some regions and most urban centers, traditional ideas of puripuri (magic) are fading. Nor is there a single sanguma tradition: the powers and practices ascribed to sorcerers vary from place to place. Witches are said to turn into creatures-bats, possums, birds-to move about at night (near Henganofi, in Eastern Highlands province, dogs are jokingly referred to as sangumas' "buses"). Their powers may be vested in their person, or derived from a location, like a river bank or grove. They may use twigs or leaves in their rites, or they may take personal items such as leftover food or excrement, parcel them in leaves and curse them, making their targets ill until the bundle is found (curing them) or destroyed (killing them). Some sangumas are said to eat the dead, or replace the organs of the living with grass or stones. The traditions are as diverse as the tribes that adhere to them.

There are signs of a new surge in sanguma killings. Missionary Tanner says that in his 26 years living in a highlands village there were no such lynchings; in the five years since he left, there have been four. Says Garry Trompf, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney: "A worrying trend since European contact, with roads and improved communication, is lethal forms of sorcery traveling, or being exported, from one region to another." There is concern about a possible link between increased fear of witchcraft and the hiv epidemic sweeping P.N.G.: a U.N. fact-finding team has recorded 12,000 new infections in the past six months, and Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta says the rate is increasing by 50% a year. Many citizens will find witchcraft a more plausible explanation for aids than a virus. "We're already seeing things go backward," says Tanner. "aids will make it [witch killing] worse."

P.N.G. is a mesh of contradictions, with threads of modernity woven into an ancient fabric. It is a country where women are still seen as property and prospective husbands must compensate a girl's parents for the loss of her labor; where the wantok system of mutual assistance saddles the political culture with nepotism and corruption; and where community ties are still strong enough to make orphanages and retirement homes unnecessary.

Ten years ago, Arnold Roy and others from his Simbu village burned alive four women they believed were witches; he says they hid the remains in caves, among the bones of World War II soldiers. Like Joe Jomani, Roy says he would kill again to stop sorcerers. Both men grew up in modern P.N.G., with electric light and airplanes, trucks and canned beer, antibiotics and elections. But 60 years after white explorers first penetrated their highlands home, the grip of ancient fears remains as powerful as ever.