Sorcery related violence is prevalent in rural villages in Papua New Guinea. In 2011, Amnesty International submitted a document to the 'Universal Periodic Review of Papua New Guinea' outlining the severity of the issue and its concerns.
According to Amnesty International 'puri-puri' (the traditional belief in sorcery) was responsible for at least 50 murders in 2008 alone, and many more are thought to have gone unreported. Although men can also fall victim to these accusations, it is 6 times more likely for women. On his recent trip Vlad Sokhin came face to face with some of these women and told us their terrifying stories...
"When I worked in Port Moresby this January, my fixer (who is from Highlands), mentioned that in his province villagers sometimes kill women, because they think that they are witches who use black magic to make people sick or even die.
The unexpected death or serious illness of a villager can provoke people to search for a 'cause' and quite often they 'pick up' a woman, accusing her of being a witch. Usually it's a woman from the same family, but it can be any random woman, with anything in her past that could raise suspicion.
For example, one of the survivors, Dini Korul from Wormai village in Simbu province told me that 4 years ago she had a dream, where one of her neighbours got sick. She went to her neighbour’s house and told them about the dream. Nothing happened after that, and her neighbour was fine. 3 years later, Dini's son died at the age of 22 from a stomach infection.
After his funeral, five of his friends came to Dini’s house and accused her of being a witch and causing the young man's death. They reminded her of the dream she had 3 years before and based on that, they tried to kill her.
They tortured her in a pigsty. Her tormentors lit a fire then, cutting her body with bush knives and burning it with hot iron bars, they forced her to admit that she was a witch. After numerous refusals they burned her vagina with the red-hot iron and were about to kill her, when women from another village called for help. Dini survived and spent over 10 months in the Kundiawa hospital. She was 'lucky.' Many other women are burnt to death or slaughtered.
Nevertheless, there are very few options for survivors. Many are disabled for life. They are expelled for their communities forever and can’t go back to their houses. Most times, relatives don't want to shelter them, because they are afraid of the possible consequences.
Dini Korul however, did go back to her home village. Now, she almost never leaves the house during daylight, living in fear of being exposed to brutal punishment again.
Superstition-driven violence happens mostly outside of big cities and only this time did I have the chance to work in the countryside. I visited the Highlands region, mostly working with sorcery related cases in the villages around Kundiawa town, in Simbu and Jiwaka provinces. There, in some areas, it happens in almost every village.
Sometimes village elders penalise the perpetrators, forcing them to pay compensation to the victim’s husband. Usually this money doesn’t benefit the victims themselves, because their husbands are afraid to be found helping them."
Fear of a repeat attack, or revenge on family or friends, is a big problem in the fight against all gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea. In many cases it stops these crimes from being reported and consequently, the attackers are rarely prosecuted. At a hospital in Kundiawa, Sokhin witnessed the strong hold that this fear has on victims and their families...
"I arrived to Kundiawa town after an 8 hour trip through the bumpy Highlands highway and one of the first people I met was a woman, called Emate, who survived a sorcery-based attack. She was at the local hospital ward and was barely able to speak, but had a strong wish to share her bitterness with me.
This was a fresh case. Her body was full of burns and scars. We talked in the ward, which was full of people. Men, women, children, all that noise, smell and insanitary conditions… When I asked her what happened, everyone stopped talking and there was complete silence. All eyes were on us.
Emate's niece, who looked after her, drew the curtains around the bed and whispered in my ear, 'Please speak more quietly and do not say the word 'sorcery'. If the other patients find out why my aunt is here, they could spread the word to her tormentors and those men would come here to kill her. Now they think that Emate is dead and we want to keep it this way.'
The fear in eyes of that young woman shocked me more than the brutal wounds on Emate's body. I did not expect that even at the hospital, dozens of kilometres away from her home village, Emate could still be in such grave danger.
Amnesty International has urged that local authorities investigate cases like Dini and Emate's more vigorously and put strategies in place to prevent such violence from continuing. The changing of Papua New Guinean attitudes towards women and gender equality, is especially key.
Pressure from the international community is one way to ensure that these changes take place but if people don't know, then they can't help. It is this that pushes photographer Vlad Sokhin to continue sharing the stories of these women with the world, and hopefully, what will encourage you to share them too. We just did.
Written by Francesca Bassenger, photography © Vlad Sokhin.
To see more of Sokhin's work, visit www.vladsokhin.com
Link to original Amnesty International Report to UPR (May 2011)