ON A tropical island in Papua New Guinea, a mob armed with guns, machetes and axes stormed a house by night.
They seized Helen Rumbali and three female relatives, set the building on fire and took the women away to be tortured. Their alleged crime was witchcraft.
Ms Rumbali’s sister and two teenage nieces were released after negotiations with police. Ms Rumbali, a 40-something former teacher, was beheaded.
Her assailants claimed they had proof Ms Rumbali had used sorcery to kill another villager, who had recently died. A swarm of fireflies apparently led witchhunters to Ms Rumbali’s home.
Violence linked to witchhunts is an increasing problem in Papua New Guinea – a diverse South Pacific tribal society of more than 800 languages and seven million people.
There is no clear explanation for the apparent surge in killings. Some argue the recent violence is fuelled not by a widespread belief in black magic, but instead by economic envy born of a mining boom.
“Jealousy is causing a lot of hatred,” said Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee, based in the area where Ms Rumbali was killed. “People are so jealous of those who are doing well in life, they resort to what our people believe in, sorcery, to kill them, to stop them continuing their development.”
She said the witchcraft charge against Ms Rumbali was just an excuse. “That was definitely a case of jealousy, because her family is really quite well-off,” Ms Hakena said. She said Ms Rumbali’s husband and son had government jobs.
The United Nations has documented hundreds of cases of sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea in recent years and many more in remote areas are thought to have gone unreported. It found attacks are often carried out with impunity.
Until last month, legislation allowed for a belief in black magic to be used as a partial legal defence for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery.
The government has repealed the law in response to the recent violence.
A wealth of mineral resources and natural gas has transformed the nation’s economy into one of the world’s fastest growing. The Asian Development Bank reported last year that Papua New Guinea had one of the highest levels of inequality in the Asia-Pacific region.
These problems play into a cultural landscape that includes a belief in black magic, said Kate Schuetze, a regional researcher for Amnesty International. “There is always a reason for the accusation, whether it’s jealousy, wanting to access someone else’s land, a personal grudge or a previous land dispute,” she said.