"They Burn Witches Here" A True Story by Kent Russell

Here is a story fit for Halloween about supposed modern witches. The full title of this powerful and bizarre story is, "They Burn Witches Here: And then they upload the photos to social media. A journey to an island caught between the ancient world and 2015."

Having studied the phenomena of witch hunts myself for a chapter I wrote in Christianity Is Not Great, I was very interested in reading this first-hand story of witch hunts in "modern" Papua New Guinea.The descriptions could well have been about the witch hunts in Europe from about 1450-1750 though. It opens with the brutal murder of a girl accused of witchcraft named Kepari Leniata:
The men pack the witch’s mouth with rags. The time for confessions has come and gone. Neighbors crowd into a circle around her, here on this hill of rubbish next to their settlement, Warakum. They watch as the men blindfold her before tying her arms, legs and stomach to a log. They watch as wood is stacked and gasoline poured. They watch as their witch is pushed facedown onto the pyre. Camera phones are held up and aimed. The match is struck and thrown.
You can read it all right here, or you can read selected quotes with brief comments below.
Witch hunts, which had been a part of many if not all traditional Papua New Guinean cultures, are now commonplace throughout the villages, townships and small cities dotting the country. Mobs are publicly humiliating and brutally torturing neighbors, family members, friends—often but not always women—and then murdering them, or else forcing them out of their communities, which in a deeply tribal society like Papua New Guinea amounts to much the same thing. No one is sure how many supposed witches have been killed—are being killed—in Papua New Guinea.
Kent Russell described the events up until the murder of Kepari Leniata. She was accused of killing a boy. His relatives wonder what had happened.
These relatives believe the dead boy’s spirit has gone over to a large and borderless place. They are very afraid for him. They are very afraid of him. Most of all, they are vengeful.

They reflect on anything he could have said or done to bring about his misfortune. Did anyone want him dead? Who could possibly want a boy dead? Who was his last contact with? Did anyone offer him food or drink?

Someone should hold a length of bamboo and call out names, one man offers. The bamboo will move when the witch is called.

An older relative speaks up. What about the neighboring wives? she asks. Other women nod enthusiastically. They speculate on the neighbors’ comings and goings in the days leading up to the boy’s death.

Whose behavior had been out of the ordinary? they wonder. Who had been wandering after sunset? Who had been staring?
Who had unsettled debts? Who was jealous?

Sitting or standing around the hut, the women wonder these things while keeping tight control over their bodies. They are being monitored closely by the men. None of the women dares to rest her head on her hand. Such an expression might be taken to mean that she is communicating with another witch. None of them dares to yawn. Covering her mouth might be taken to mean that she has a devil inside her, a devil she wishes to keep. The men watch for such signs, the small details out of place. The women know this, and so grieve theatrically.

One woman coughs. The chatter stops. This woman speaks softly, offering a medical explanation for the boy’s death. It was an ordinary death, she is saying. The boy caught an illness in his stomach. He simply died.

And what caused his illness? shoots back another.

There is only one explanation they can agree on: A witch had extracted the boy’s heart. She had stolen it, and she was eating it piece by piece, savoring it like a crocodile with its drowned prey. If the clanspeople did not hurry, if they did not find the witch and retrieve the boy’s heart, he would surely walk alone in the spirit world forever.
It is decided: The relatives will hire a glas meri, a witch who now uses her powers for good. For a large fee, the glas meri will divine for them the one responsible. And then they will capture this evil creature. They will retrieve the boy’s heart and destroy the witch before she can bring more chaos upon the people of the settlement.

The glas meri divined three suspects for the dead boy's relatives. Two were elderly women who had come to Warakum from the province of Chimbu, which was notorious for its witches; the third was a 20-year-old mother from the grieving family’s own ancestral province, Enga. It was one of these three that stole your son’s heart in the night, the glas meri explained.

And so, the men of the dead boy’s family tracked down the two crones who were hiding in the bush. When the men apprehended them, they wondered of them, If you are innocent, why did you flee?

The men struck a fire. They thrust iron rods into the flames, and they turned them until their upper lengths glowed orange to white. If you are innocent, they wondered of the women, why do you fear?

The men tore away the women’s clothes. They struck the crones, who cried out. The men knew that their blows would simply bounce off of them if they were witches. Witches have skin like rubber. Not only this: If they were witches, their treachery would include crying out that these blows were harming them, even when the blows were not.

How can you defend your actions? the men asked. How can accused such as you be defended? By witnesses? Witchcraft is, by its evil nature, an invisible crime. Who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim, they said. None other.

We can’t expect you to accuse yourselves, can we? they asked. We must rely upon your victims. And they do testify. The body of the child you killed did testify. The good sorcery of the glas meri saw to that.

The men removed the rods from the fire and applied them to the skin of the witches, which closed over the wounds even as the hot irons were being applied. The men were deaf to their cries. Tell us where you put it, they demanded. Tell us where you put the young boy’s heart. Give it back to us so that we can make him whole again. Tell us where you put the heart so we can bring him back.

It wasn’t us! the crones said, sounding exactly like begging women. Please! they screamed.

Give us the name of the real witch, the men demanded. They rolled the irons through the coals.

Yes! Yes! the pair said. We admit to practicing sorcery! But we did not practice it on that boy. We had nothing to do with that boy.

Kolim nem, the gang demanded. Call the name.

Spare us, and we can tell you who did it.

Kolim nem.

The girl, they said. The third one. Kepari Leniata. They said the name over and over. A timeless wail: Not I, sirs, but her.
Stunned silence. I can only sit in stunned silence. I am not surprised at all about these events. But they stun me all over again. Readers at DC, this is what religion does.

The story turns to Monica Paulus, who had believed in witchcraft up until the point she herself was accused. Narrowly escaping death she is now known as the witch savior of Papua New Guinea.

She talks to Russell, who writes:
There were—and are—people who engage in witchcraft, sorcery, sanguma. The rites are passed down, the spells fiercely guarded. "It is not just that it’s practiced," Monica said. "It is that everybody believes in it. The prime minister believes in it. The police chief in the city of Kundiawa believes in it. They had a national sorcery conference last year, an academic conference, and more than half of the scholars in attendance said they believed in witchcraft.

“I believed in it, before I was accused,” Monica admitted. When she was younger, she was sure that witches were behind the unseen, unencumbered forces pulling her land apart. She believed that their terrible crimes must be met with an equally terrible punishment. She threw her head back and laughed.

“It changed my mindset completely,” she said. It had been her honest-to-God conversion moment. When she found herself at the center of her village, in the middle of her family and neighbors, her most loved ones, with all of them pointing their fingers at her—only then could she see with absolute clarity that the whole mechanism was a sham. The violence being done to her in the name of justice, or the greater good, or the cosmic order was not at all distinct from the violence and suffering it hoped to suppress.

She finally understood that misfortune was oftentimes random, with no one agent behind it, and that this was perhaps more frightening than the prospect of witches. She also understood that she would most likely spend the rest of her life alone, physically and spiritually. Over the course of three decades, Monica had amassed property, family and friends—only to have those same family and friends suddenly cast her out, confiscate her property and invalidate her past life. Her three children still loved her, but her other relatives considered her subhuman. “When my husband dies,” she said, “I know they will come for me.”

“Do you think you’ll live to see the change?” I asked Monica.

“It will take generations for it to change,” she said solemnly. She told me that right now, maybe five out of every 100 PNGers had come to disbelieve witchcraft. That meant the next generation might have 10 disbelievers for every 90 witch hunters, and 20 in the generation after that and so on.

PNG’s young people needed to learn that diseases are caused by germs, she said, and that tragedy cannot always be explained.

Now, suspected witches are tried publicly before they are roasted over open flames, crucified, dragged behind vehicles, strung up and beaten to death, buried alive, beheaded, forced to drink gasoline or stoned. “It is the blowing of the wind,” Monica said. “It moves everything now.”
Monica received a call that Kepari Leniata is about to be killed, so she tries to get to that area to help stop it. She arrived too late. She only had a small chance of saving her anyway.

Russell tells of other tortures and killings:
I heard the story of a parliament member who tortured his wife for his typhoid. After accusing her of hexing his water, the MP invited the police to come by and watch his wife’s ordeal, so they could ensure that everything was proceeding accordingly. I heard the story of a girl who was forced out of PNG altogether because she shared betel nut with a warrior who later died a coward’s death in a tribal fight. The rest of the girl’s family still lived among her accusers, in fear, because they didn’t want to lose their land. "Every week, they pull a woman out of the river without a head," the young girl’s mother told me when I spoke with her. "It’s happening. Tru tru. Like pulling fish."
Now for those of us who want to change their culture and for Christians who think they're going to hell, there are some lessons we should learn. For instance, John and Marciana are missionaries who tell Russell:
“You can’t use logic with them,” Marciana said. “Everything needs to be ‘story.’ You only convince them through narrative. How do you think they passed the time out there all those centuries? They tell themselves stories that make sense of what’s happening to them, what’s going on in their lives. All through the night, until 1 or 2 am. Then the pigs get restless at four, and they do it all over again the next day.”

The first tribespeople John and Marciana encountered at their mission did not have a word for the concept of goodness. There was only not-evil. Likewise, there was no such thing as truth; there was only not-lying. When people died, they became spirits, and the world was thick with these ancestral spirits, who did harm if not appeased. These ancestral spirits were what the people worshipped.
It's a foreign culture to us just as surely as ours is a foreign culture to them. In fact, in their culture sorcery works! Russell reports:
I was reminded of something Father Gibbs, Monica, John and Marciana—practically everyone else I met in PNG—had told me: Sorcery works. Sorcery works in that it will harm you if you believe it can harm you. In much the same way, a witch hunt works, insofar as its perpetrators believe in what they are doing. So long as the perpetrators believe in their scapegoat’s guilt, they aren’t killing one among them—they are coming together to solve a problem, experiencing the closeness born of complicity.

Was Kepari Leniata a witch? She clearly cast some kind of spell over her community.
A college-educated chief named Anton tell us
...that it was natural—it made sense—for the average Papua New Guinean to believe in witchcraft. It is the belief that undergirds society; it’s what has upheld order in the absence of strong, centralized government. The great danger in a place like PNG, where there is no real judiciary, where allegiance is tied to blood, is that reprisal will come back around, again and again as in the “vicious circles” of family vendettas and gang wars, force fueling force like a fire fed on the very things thrown over it, the attempts to snuff it out. As such, violence and death must be contained, regulated and explained through the framework of something like witchcraft.

“You visitors,” he told me before sending me off for the day, “you don’t understand—you don’t well understand—that we want to keep this tradition. This is our tradition. This is where the strength of our communities has traditionally come from. Our social harmony was going along until the white man arrived. There wasn’t torture until now. You intrude, and suddenly the things that used to go smoothly no longer do.”
Again, this is all stunning to me, even though I've heard it before in other cases. Stunning. How can we bring peace and hope to countries like these? It's baffling. But we must try.