I was horrified to learn of the dreadful death last week in Papua New Guinea of Kepari Leniata, a twenty-year-old mother, burned alive after being accused of bringing about the death of a six-year-old boy by sorcery. She was dragged from her hut by a mob, stripped naked and tortured with white hot iron bars before being incinerated on top of a pile of petrol soaked tyres. This atrocity took place the village of Paiala in the highlands to the north-west of Port Moresby, the capital.
Belief in witchcraft and black magic is widespread in Papua New Guinea, but please do not assume that this was the work of primitive people. There are indeed many stone-age like communities in the country but Paiala is not one of them. The barbarism here, if anything, resembled the kind of lynchings once commonplace in the Southern United States in the early part of the last century, with people, including school children, standing around for a photo opportunity.
Peter O’Neil, the country’s Prime Minister, has promised that the killers will be brought to justice, though it’s open to question how many in that mob, perpetrators and onlookers, will actually be prosecuted. The truth is, like the witch camps of Ghana, a subject I previously reported on, accusations of malfeasance are most often made for material gain or because the victim is vulnerable in some way or other, without family, clan or protection. The violence, moreover, is most often gender-based, with women suffering disproportionately. I understand that the authorities are looking for the victim's husband, who may have had some kind of relationship with the dead boy's family.
The irony of the New Guinea outrage is that the law not only fails to protect women like Kepari it also, paradoxically, gives warrant to those who take action against those accused of witchcraft. The 1971 Sorcery Act, introduced when Australia was still the administrative power, outlaws the use of sorcery and witchcraft. This itself in recent years has seen an upsurge in attacks on innocent people, convicted of kangaroo courts made up of local elders. It will take a lot more than the Prime minister’s pious words to change things.
It’s easy to sit in judgement, is it not, over such distant things, over the gullibility of others, over the backward, the stupid, the ignorant and the superstitious? One response I read to the New Guinea horror was that this kind of thing “mostly happens in the remote areas of human civilization.” No, it does not; it happens right in our midst; it happens with our approval, active or implied. In the sixteenth century the French thinker Montaigne wrote that the savagery of the civilized was far more frightful than the savagery of the savage;
I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but lately seen, not among the inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow citizens, and which is worse, under the colours of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.
Look around the world; look around our world. The truth is not that not much has changed. The truth is that we all live under the shadow of barbarism.