In Papua New Guinea's Sorcery Wars, A Peacemaker Takes On Her Toughest Case : Parallels In the Eastern Highlands, the accusation of sorcery is a vigilante's rallying cry. Such accusations often lead to violence and are believed to be responsible for dozens of deaths every year.

In Papua New Guinea's Sorcery Wars, A Peacemaker Takes On Her Toughest Case

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The lush, tropical nation of Papua New Guinea sits on an island just north of Australia. Traditions there have been developed over thousands of years. But today the ancient practice of sorcery is becoming a trigger for a modern kind of violence. Public, mob-style attacks against suspected practitioners have drawn the concern of locals, aid groups and the government. Durrie Bouscaren went to the scene of one attack in the country's mountainous highlands region to try and understand the root causes of the violence.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: The people who live on the mountain call it the land where the sky falls down. Up in the eastern highlands, the mist rolls down the slopes and over the pine trees in a way that makes you feel suspended. And it's here where, in a village that overlooks the town of Henganofi, three young men died just after the new year. The clan decided that sorcery was the cause of the deaths despite a recent typhoid outbreak. Villagers armed with machetes killed the man they believed was responsible and set fire to the houses where his family lived.

Alongside an aid worker, I visited members of the victim's family - dozens of people sheltered in a church near the village for six weeks. Jim Maris, the victim's brother, says his infant daughter died there because his wife couldn't get to a hospital.

JIM MARIS: (Through interpreter) The baby was sick. She couldn't come out because of fear of being hung. Yeah, she stayed at the church, and the baby passed away.

BOUSCAREN: Sorcery is an ancient practice here, and many people believe that it has real consequences in the mortal world. But in the last few decades, accused sorcerers have been tortured and killed, sometimes publicly, and in places where these types of attacks didn't happen in the past. Somu Nosi is a social researcher in the regional capital Goroka. She's also worked as an interpreter for NPR.

SOMU NOSI: We have this negative impression from these people of murderers or, you know, killers.

BOUSCAREN: As she sips a cup of tea in a grocery store deli, she explains how in Tok Pisin, a colonial language based on English and German, her grandfather who practiced sorcery would be known as a poison man. But in her tribe's local language, the term is tusa man, closer to his role as a village healer.

NOSI: They'll say, tusa means herbs or to make it all right.

BOUSCAREN: She says tusa men were also known for their ability to kill their enemies with poisonous plants or spiritual powers.

NOSI: Aside from him being a warrior, you know, carrying bows and arrows, this was one of the - another skill added onto what the community had. But to us, it was our skill, our possession, our prized, you know, specialty.

BOUSCAREN: This specialty gave the tribe something that others feared, and that fear protected them. When Australian colonists and missionaries arrived at the start of the 20th century, they pressed local residents to abandon their beliefs. Sorcery was considered the work of the devil and punishable with imprisonment. People converted to Christianity.

Today, it's hard to know how many deaths are tied to sorcery attacks. There's no official count. Some estimates are as high as 500 murders a year. Others are closer to 30. Papua New Guinea's government has committed to a national action plan to prevent the violence. But the why of the issue, why an accusation like this can be used to justify mob violence - that's what still nags at Monica Paulus. I meet her in a white-walled conference room at the Tribal Foundation in Port Moresby.

MONICA PAULUS: What do I say? Good morning.

BOUSCAREN: She's a sweet, round-faced grandmother from Chimbu Province just west of Henganofi. She's also an aid worker who's faced down mobs to rescue sorcery victims. Paulus spends a lot of time interviewing the accusers. In her area, they mostly target women and children.

PAULUS: They accuse women because they want the land. If the husband dies and if the children are very small, they accuse the woman so that they will get the land, the coffee garden.

BOUSCAREN: Other times, she says, an attack is a retaliation for something else.

MARIS: (Foreign language spoken).

BOUSCAREN: In the case of the village near Henganofi, Jim Maris says he thinks his brother was targeted because of his recent success growing coffee. He says it was jealousy that prompted the attack.

MARIS: Jealous.

BOUSCAREN: When the brothers started selling raw coffee beans in town, they made good money.

MARIS: (Through interpreter) They tried. They work hard, and they get money. And they tried to improve their lives. When their life has improved, then other people - they become jealous, and they attack them and accuse them.

BOUSCAREN: Several months after the attack, police have made no arrests. A women's organization tried to broker a peace deal between the clans, but it was broken a week later. Relatives of the first victim had retaliated by killing two more. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Goroka, Papua New Guinea.

SHAPIRO: Durrie Bouscaren is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. It's an international reporting fellowship sponsored by The John Alexander Project.

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