A teacher has been tortured and beheaded by her neighbours in a Papua New Guinea village because they say she was a witch responsible for the death of a sick villager.
The angry mob brandishing guns, machetes and axes surrounded her house and pulled Helen Rumbali, her sister and two nieces away. They then burnt down the house.
They say a swarm of fire flies led them from the deceased person’s grave to her house–sure evidence they say that she was a sorcerer and was practicing black magic.
Helen’s older sister and younger nieces were slashed with knives, then released after negotiations with police. But the mob went on to torture the former teacher, in her 40s, and then publicly cut off her head.
The sickening and heinous act is one of many horrific similar stories coming out from the island, often considered a paradise in the Pacific.
In February a young woman was stripped by angry armed villages, tied up and burnt alive. Her crime? Allegedly more black magic.
The beautiful tropical island, which was only discovered by the western world in the 1930s, is a complex mix of ancient tribes and western industrial influences, from the gold rush period and more recently, mining.
But for tribes people still living by ancient social rules, violence, as opposed to dialogue, is the most common means of problem solving.
Speaking to the Mail Online, Dr Nina Rajani, a former Medicines Sans Frontières volunteer who worked in a hospital clinic in Papua New Guinea, said violence was so bad, she was unable to leave her house at night.
‘Violence is a huge problem out there. Almost every case that came to the hospital A&E department was to do with violence. Whenever there was a disagreement it wasn’t verbal, it was always physical; that’s how they dealt with things because it’s a tribal culture.’
Brighton-based GP, Dr Rajani, who helped run a clinic for victims of domestic and sexual violence, said she was aware of the strong belief in sorcery, which was systemic in the local society.
She said: ‘The guard to our house told me his brother and his brother’s friend had been killed by a lightening bolt while playing rugby in a big field.
‘He said all the people in the village had gone on a witch hunt to find out who in the village had caused the lightening bolt to kill his brother – they said it was sorcery.’
This was typical of village behaviour in the highlands of Papua New Guinea – far from the idyllic and more developed southern tourist resorts. The idea of ‘pay-back’ is and engrained principle in the local culture.
But with the introduction of western consumption, and products such as televisions and branded clothes, there is now even more for the tribes to fight over.
While there is a genuine belief among many of the tribes, particularly in the highlands, in sorcery and black magic, experts claim sorcery is used as an excuse for jealousy.
Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee, which is based in the area Rumbali was killed, told ABC News: ‘Jealousy is causing a lot of hatred… People who 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 own development.’
According to reports, Rumbali’s house stood out since it was ‘permanent’, or built of wood. Her
husband and son had government jobs and the family had tertiary educations and high social standing.
She said this was ‘definitely a case of jealousy’ because of her family’s position in the village.
Attacks of such nature have been reported by the hundreds, according to the United Nations, and are often carried out with impunity.
For 42 years, the country’s Sorcery Act allowed for a belief in black magic to be used as a partial legal defense for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery.
Only last month, the government repealed the law in response to the recent violence.
But black magic alone appears not to be the main cause of such violence; neighbouring Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands also have a strong belief in sorcery, but without the same levels of violence.
It appears Papua New Guinea’s relative wealth, and subsequent faster economic growth, are to blame.
The country has a wealth of mineral resources and natural gas, which has propelled PNG from a long-stagnant economy into one of the world’s fastest growing over the past decade. Economic growth has increased on average almost 7 per cent annually from 2007 to 2010.