Nearly all the residents of Koge in Papua New Guninea watched as Julianna Gene and Kopaku Konia were dragged from their homes, to be hung from trees and tortured for several hours with bush knives. No one came forward to help. In the eyes of the
villagers, the women were witches. They deserved to die. The finger of suspicion fell on the women after a local man died in a car accident.
A shocking increase in witch-hunt deaths in Papua New Guinea has prompted the government to launch a parliamentary commission of inquiry with a view to toughening the law. Joe Mek Teine, the chairman of the nation's law reform commission, has publicly
declared that sorcery killings are getting out of hand .
Most witch hunts happen in the Highlands, the remote mountainous interior wracked by centuries of tribal wars and blood feuds. Contact with the outside world was only established in the 1930s, when some of the many ethnic groups were still living
stone-age existences. Although there are no official statistics on sorcery killings, more than 50 were reported to the police in just two Highland provinces last year.
Belief in black magic is so ingrained that the government legally recognises sorcery, under the 1976 Sorcery Act. It permits white magic (healing or fertility rites for example) but the so-called black arts are punishable by up to two years in jail. This
has resulted in murderers alleging the use of black magic as provocation and securing reduced sentences.
Branding someone a witch is a crime, but Detective Blacky Koglame estimates that fewer than 1 per cent of cases end up in court. Even when witnesses do come forward, he admits the police simply do not have the resources to investigate: And anyway,
arresting people is very hard. Everyone in the community is usually involved, so you can't just go in looking for suspects, as you'd have to arrest the whole village, and that's impossible.
In one area deep in the Highlands a team of eight witch hunters claim to have tortured and killed 18 people between them. The leader of the group, a man with a reputation as a violent local gangster said: It is part of my culture, my tradition,
it's my belief. I see myself as a guardian angel. We feel that we kill on good grounds and we're working for the good of the people in the village.
Witch hunts nearly always occur after a death or an illness of a community member. Natural causes for death or illness are just not accepted, said Pastor Jack Urame, a researcher at the Melanesian Institute and one of the country's leading experts
on sorcery killings: So whenever someone dies in a village, a person must blamed.