GOROKA, Papua New Guinea — In late 2014, Midear Kuwi, a woman in her mid-50s, was taking a shower at her home in the village of Ouvakavi, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, when a group of angry men encircled her house. They shouted that she was a witch and that she had caused an illness in the family of a powerful local official. Before long, she was their hostage.
“They took me to their house and interrogated me,” Kuwi said, quietly. “They asked me if I performed sorcery. I told them I didn’t know anything about it. So they became frustrated and took a piece of metal pipe and started beating me with it.”
The men hit Kuwi with the metal rod on her knee and hip, which was still sore to the touch, and then struck her on her head, she said. She pointed to a bald patch on her scalp where a scar was still forming.
Police never intervened, she said, and the beating stopped only when her male relatives, who outnumbered the attackers, stepped in and threatened to kill the entire family of accusers.
In the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea, there is a saying that no one dies a natural death.
The belief in sanguma, a catch-all local word that describes a method of causing harm to someone without laying hands on the person, has been around for centuries as a customary belief in this Pacific island nation, as it was until recently in Europe and North America. But in many areas of the country, accusations of using black magic are intensifying.
Hundreds of people have been accused of practicing black magic targeted by vigilantes in recent years, according to the United Nations
“Suspected witches have been thrown from cliffs, tortured, dragged behind cars, burned or buried alive,” stated a United Nations report from 2012.
Many of the victims are poor, vulnerable women like Kuwi, living in the remote and highland provinces.
“The rates of violence, not just sorcery but generalized sexual violence, are at epidemic levels,” said Philippe Allen, who until recently served as the country director at Oxfam, an international aid group. “These women are being born into war zones.”
Police and community activists are at odds as to why the attacks are increasing. But they may be driven in part by trends surrounding the country’s recent economic development.
Papua New Guinea is in the midst of a resource boom, including a $15.7 billion Exxon Mobil gas export project, and the spike in foreign investment has brought the country into middle-income status. GDP quadrupled in the past 10 years, and the country is forecast to have fastest-growing economy in the world in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But not everyone is benefiting. Many of the gains of recent economic development fail to reach rural areas, where more than 85 percent of the population lives. Nearly 40 percent of the country remains under the poverty line, defined as living on less than $1.25 a day at 2005 prices.
This growing wealth gap is leading to wealth disputes at the bottom, according to Kamane Waugo, a program officer at Oxfam who works with sorcery accusation victims across the highland provinces.
“We are so isolated in our villages. It’s just me relating with the same community members all my life, so the relationship is very intense, and there’s a lot of frictions,” said Waugo. The attitude of the villagers is, “If anything doesn’t go well with me, I’ll take my frustration out on the community members.”
“Sorcery is a good excuse used to take people out,” he added.